The North risks becoming a haven for Russian-linked “dark money” as a result of the power-sharing Stormont Executive being hamstrung, Justice Minister Naomi Long has warned.
The Alliance Party leader, speaking at her party’s first in-person annual conference in three years, said the resignation of DUP First Minister Paul Givan last month, in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol, denied the North a “working administration”.
The result is the inability to make “key decisions” at a time of “emerging from a pandemic, fighting a battle against climate change, facing a cost-of-living crisis and there’s a war on our doorstep in Eastern Europe,” she told the gathering in a south Belfast hotel on Saturday.
“This is not the time to walk away from government, this is time to lead in government,” the East Belfast MLA said.
Ms Long said she had met with British home office ministers earlier in the week about Westminster legislation to strengthen “unexplained wealth orders” which would allow for assets of billionaire oligarchs to be seized.
It would also “increase transparency of shell companies and trusts, as part of the sanctions against Russia. ”
“For Northern Ireland to be able to keep pace and ensure that we don’t become a haven for dark money, we need a legislative consent motion, something that isn’t possible without a functioning Executive in place,” she cautioned.
The Alliance Party was seeking legal advice about the possibility of working “around that barrier – all because others refuse to do the job they were elected to do,” she said.
The centrist, liberal Alliance Party has had a strong showing at the ballot box in the North over the past three elections, and are confident of more gains in the Stormont Assembly election in May.
Attracting 9 per cent of first preference votes last time voters returned MLAs in 2017, the party secured eight seats. However, opinion polls put Alliance support, weeks before the next election, at up to 16 per cent.
Ms Long, the party’s first MEP, albeit short-lived, drew applause as she noted the affiliate membership granted by the European Parliament’s Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE), to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s party, Sluha Narodu.
“I think none of us can fail to have been impressed by his composure and leadership as Ukraine has seen war waged by Russian troops on the streets of their towns and cities, or to be moved by the horror of the scenes unfolding in a nation only a three hour flight from here,” she said.
“This war of aggression waged against a sovereign, democratic state is not the first breach of international law by the Kremlin, who were responsible for the Salisbury poisonings, and the annexation of Crimea to name but two.
“Neither is it the work of the Russian people – indeed, it has exposed the lengths to which the Kremlin is willing to go to subjugate freedom and democracy for their own people.”
The British government needs to do more to help refugees fleeing Ukraine, rather than putting “barriers in their way as they flee a war zone.”
“We need to waive the visas and welcome the refugees,” she said, adding that swifter economic sanctions were needed against Vladimir Putin, to “to strip this kleptocracy of its source of power – its wealth.”
“It should disquiet us all that so many of those in this (Tory) government are recipients of large donations from Russian sources.. the influence of that dark money was not far away when it came to Brexit either,” she added.
Brexit continues to “destabilise relations between the UK and the EU even at this critical time as well as our politics much closer to home.”
“It is a painful irony that those who most avidly pursued the hardest possible Brexit, refusing every possible alternative to the protocol, are the same people who are now bemoaning most loudly the impact of the Brexit they chose and the Protocol they made an inevitability,” said Ms Long.
Stephen Farry, Alliance deputy leader and MP for North Down, said the public needed to accept that Russian sanctions in the wake of its war on Ukraine would “not be painless for our economy too.”
“But much more is at stake,” he said. “A full spectrum of sanctions should have been imposed much earlier to maximise deterrence. But we now need to have the strongest suite of sanctions possible.”
The UK is “falling behind” Western allies – including Ireland – in imposing sanctions and its humanitarian response, he said, adding that “the influence of dirty Russian money must be driven out of London.”
“We are facing a massive humanitarian crisis and the biggest movement of people in Europe since the end of the Second World War.”
Mr Farry said he has warned British prime minister Boris Johnson that housing refugees fleeing the invasion can not be left to Eastern European countries alone.
“But he didn’t want to know,” he said.
“Today, the UK response is shamefully falling short of what is being offered across the European Union, including notably from Ireland which has opened its doors.
“Our message to the Home Office is: Stop waving flags. Waive Visas.”
On the Northern Ireland Protocol post-Brexit trading arrangements, Mr Farry said “there is no such thing as a good or sensible Brexit” and that it posed “major and multiple” challenges to the region.
“We want Northern Ireland to re-join the European Union at the earliest opportunity,” he added.
“Pending this development, we want the closest relationship possible with the EU.”
The protocol – opposed by unionist leaders because it puts a de facto trade border in the Irish Sea – was an “inevitable consequence of the UK’s choices” around the type of Brexit it wanted, he said.
Alliance are “protocol realists” and didn’t want to see “any borders or lines on map”, but in the absence of an alternative “the only course of action is to try and make it work.”
The North has “greater economic opportunities than other parts of the UK due
to our ability to have unfettered access to both the Great Britain and European markets for goods” under the Protocol, he said.
“This relative opportunity must be exploited fully. But at present it is not,” he said.
Alliance wants to “protect the limited dual market access to Great Britain and the European Union currently available to Northern Ireland”, Mr Farry added.