I don't buy it, says Anna Lo of Alliance Party racism and ageism claims
A row has erupted among Alliance veterans after party president Anna Lo hit back at claims of racism and ageism in the ranks.
The former MLA said playing the 'ism' card was wrong, and insisted she had never experienced discrimination in all her years in the party.
"I just don't buy it," she said. "I think it's wrong and people can see through it."
Yesterday this newspaper revealed two high-profile Alliance councillors had dramatically quit the party just weeks ahead of the Assembly election, amid accusations of ageism, racism and snobbery. Geraldine Rice, the party's longest-serving councillor, stood down after 28 years, and its only ethnic minority representative, Vasundhara Kamble, quit saying Alliance was a "tight clique of elitist individuals" that treated her as an "outsider".
She added that while the party "gives the impression of being welcoming for ethnic minorities", that was not how she was treated.
Challenging Ms Kamble's racism claim, Ms Lo, the first politician born in East Asia elected to any of the UK's parliaments, said: "I am shocked by her allegations and it really upsets me to hear. It has certainly not been my experience.
"Whatever has gone wrong, it is absolutely wrong to blame it on her background.
"A lot of it is about how much you have contributed in your role, how active you've been, how much you've achieved for your electorate and what you do in the council.
"You can't always be invited in, you have to have the confidence to put yourself forward.
"She should ask herself this and be absolutely honest about what her achievements have actually been. It's wrong to use the race card in this way to criticise the party."
Ms Lo (66) also doesn't accept Ms Rice's accusations of ageism. The 70-year-old said she had been stabbed in the back by party colleagues when they opted to nominate councillor Tim Morrow over her as the next mayor of Lisburn and Castlereagh.
"This is absolutely nothing to do with ageism," said Ms Lo. "She has been selected by the party again and again for many years. It's really wrong to use that sort of 'ism'. Again, it is down to her own role as councillor and how much she has really achieved for her constituents.
"It is a democratic process and people judge you on what you have done, not by your age. We've had a lot of councillors older than her over the years in prominent positions.
"She should not use ageism to try to smear the party. If anything it seems to me to be sour grapes that she didn't get the mayoral position."
Ms Lo, who stood down as an MLA after nine years in Stormont before last year's election, says that rather than falling foul of racism or ageism in the Alliance Party, she consistently received excellent backing from colleagues.
"It really was the opposite," she said.
"When nasty racist and personal social media comments were addressed to me, the party rallied round. Our chief whip Stewart Dickson went through hundreds and hundreds of nasty comments with my researcher, they picked out the very worst to report to police and they shielded me from the most extreme messages, so I know what it's like to be on the receiving end of those things."
Indeed, Ms Lo's experiences were quite dramatic, with one man, David John Wylie, given a suspended sentence for posting menacing messages to the politician on Facebook. He was pictured holding a machine gun alongside the message 'you are next'.
At least five others were visited by police and warned to back off, with one later writing to the Belfast-based politician to apologise.
Mother-of-two Ms Lo believes her former party colleagues Ms Rice and Ms Kamble should have aired their grievances to the party before deciding to quit.
"Naomi Long is a very approachable leader, so they should have gone to her," she said. "Or at the very least, they should have spoken to the leader of their group at the council before taking such drastic action, resigning and blaming the party for their own feelings."
Speaking yesterday on Radio Ulster's TalkBack programme, Ms Rice denied her resignation was a case of sour grapes, saying instead it was down to the "disrespect and undermining" she received from party colleagues.
"Not at all," she said.
"There's only so much a person can take."