The Alliance Party will undoubtedly take a position on Northern Ireland’s constitutional position at some point in the future, leader Naomi Long has said.
But Mrs Long insisted the constitutional question was not at the forefront of most people’s minds at present, as they face a crisis-hit health service and spiraling cost-of-living pressures.
Fresh from addressing her party conference at the weekend, the East Belfast MLA said any future referendum on whether Northern Ireland should remain within the UK had to be informed by facts and evidence on the consequences of a vote for a united Ireland.
The cross-community Alliance Party currently does not take a position on the constitution and designates as neither unionist or nationalist within Stormont’s power-sharing structures.
“The things that are pressing on people’s minds, our health service, on the cost-of-living crisis, the fact that we have to deal with climate change – these are the issues that are gripping people, not the constitutional question right now, ” she told BBC NI’s Sunday Politics show.
“And when we take a position, as undoubtedly will happen at some point in the future, it will be based on facts and evidence.
“We’re not going to see a referendum and we don’t want to support a referendum on Northern Ireland’s future in the context of, for example, a Brexit-style referendum where you promise everything to everybody, and everybody comes away disappointed.
“So, we’ve got to actually focus on the things that matter to people and I think what we’ve got to do also is respect the fact that for many people in our community, and for a growing number, it isn’t the thing that defines their politics, and we’ve got to adapt our politics to respect that.”
In her conference speech on Saturday, Mrs Long said a big result for the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland’s Assembly election in May could herald the end of Stormont political system based on binary division.
She stressed the need for major changes to structures that are currently based on the community designation system that effectively hands blocs of unionists or nationalists a veto.
On Sunday, Mrs Long said Stormont could no longer function if one party was able to halt effective governance if it decided to “take their ball and go home”.
Her comments come amid the latest powersharing crisis at Stormont.
The Executive imploded last month when the DUP withdrew First Minister Paul Givan from the administration as part of its campaign of protest against Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
The move automatically ousted Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill from office and removed the Executive’s ability to make any significant decisions.
Other ministers, such as Mrs Long, remain in post but are constrained in their ability to shape better policies.
There remains uncertainty whether a new administration can be formed on the other side of the May 5 election, with the DUP making clear it cannot be business as usual until Brexit barriers on Irish Sea trade are removed.
“We need to make sure that in future assemblies and executives that no party can take their ball and go home, and leave the rest of us in this kind of situation,” Mrs Long told BBC NI on Sunday.
“I think what we do need to do is rebalance the playing field. If the DUP don’t want to be part of government, they have a right to be, but if they don’t want to be that shouldn’t mean we can’t have a government, and the same should go for every other party.
“If parties want to walk away from government, that’s their choice, which they should answer for, but they shouldn’t be able to hold the rest of us hostage.”
Mrs Long branded Mr Givan’s withdrawal as first minister as “scandalous” given the problems facing people in Northern Ireland.
The move means the Executive is unable to agree to a three-year budget and Sinn Fein Finance Minister Conor Murphy says it also means an additional £300 million funding pot earmarking for the coming financial year cannot be spent.
The DUP disputes this assertion and has called on the other Stormont parties to work together to find a way to allocate the money despite the lack of functioning executive.
“I suppose we can draw some comfort from the fact that for the first time in a long time, the DUP’s answer isn’t ‘no’, because that is unfortunately part of the problem,” said the Alliance leader.
“They’re the ones who have walked away from government and left us in this legally ambiguous position where we have ministers in office but not in power, where we can do things that we’ve already been doing, but we can’t do new things.”
She added: “I really think it’s scandalous given the pressures that people are facing, given the pressures on our health service, given the pressures on the cost-of-living crisis, and given the fact that this money could be lost to us if we don’t spend it, I think it’s scandalous that the DUP is standing in the way of us doing that.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.