Alliance Party conference: Anna Lo comes out fighting over Irish unity storm
But dismay at her comments won't go away
Anna Lo has come out fighting against criticism over her controversial comments on the prospect of a united Ireland – some from within the Alliance Party.
And her party leader David Ford also hit out at attempts to pigeon-hole the question of nationality, saying: "We aren't the moderates in Northern Ireland politics – we're the radicals. We don't fit the unionist versus nationalist mould of Northern Ireland politics – we were made to smash it and there's only one way we will do it – by convincing more and more people to step forward and vote Alliance."
That was the punchy message which the Alliance leader hoped would dominate the coverage of his party conference which was hosted on Saturday.
However, it got overshadowed when Anna Lo, the fast-talking and voter-friendly Euro candidate said, in a pre-conference interview, that she favoured a united Ireland in the long term and regarded the border as artificial.
The conference was carefully choreographed to defuse this bombshell after unionists demanded an apology and Ms Lo, who is ethnic Chinese, was racially abused on the internet.
A small, animated woman, she was in sparkling form, frequently wreathed in smiles, but party handlers steered their charismatic candidate clear of interviews. She was hustled past journalists who were told "you have got the speech – that is what she is saying", but she did make her position clear when she delivered her script to conference.
"Of course, in recent days a lot has been said about my views on the constitutional issue, and many have tried to badge me as a nationalist. Let me make this very clear – I cannot and will not be reduced to one label, just as the Alliance Party cannot be reduced to the labels of either nationalist or unionist," she declared.
"I didn't join Sinn Fein or the SDLP, parties that define themselves as nationalist, and for whom the border question is their motivation. No, I joined the Alliance Party because my motivation isn't a united Ireland, but a united Northern Ireland. I joined Alliance because my priority was a shared future; it still is, and it always will be," Ms Lo told the conference to applause.
The party rallied around her and she got standing ovations at the beginning and end of her speech.
Yet there were fears that, however she couched it, her pro-unity stance would impact on Alliance votes in predominantly unionist areas like East Belfast and Castlereagh in the local government election. Like the Euro poll, it is being held on May 22.
Two Castlereagh councillors, Geraldine Rice (below) and Vasundhara Kamble, stood out by remaining seated during both Ms Lo's standing ovations.
Mrs Rice spoke of her shock at reading Ms Lo's interview.
"I don't agree with what she said ... in hindsight she shouldn't have said it but it is not Alliance's view, it is Anna's own personal view and everyone is entitled to their personal view," she told the Belfast Telegraph.
She argued: "It may affect us but I don't think the councillors who have worked hard over the years are going to be that affected".
She was the only person to publicly distance herself from Ms Lo.
The party had a number of trophy recruits on display. Alan McBride, the victims campaigner, whose wife Sharon and father-in- law John Frizzell were killed in the Shankill bombing, has recently joined. He spoke of his enthusiasm for the party's cross-community credentials when he addressed the conference.
Duncan Morrow, former head of the Community Relations Council, is a witty orator who is standing for Belfast City Council. He described Ms Lo as a "one woman publicity machine".
Paula Bradshaw, a former UUP candidate, is also running for Alliance and stressed her support for Ms Lo, though adding that she personally would vote to remain in the United Kingdom if there was a referendum.