Flags row sours Giro d'Italia as Alliance MLA Anna Lo targeted by racist thugs
Racist abuse and political rows look set to overshadow the staging of the biggest sporting event to take place in Northern Ireland.
Police last night confirmed they were investigating a barrage of racist insults directed at Alliance MLA Anna Lo over comments she made regarding the flying of flags during the Giro d'Italia.
The South Belfast representative was targeted by loyalists after speaking out in favour of removing flags and sectarian murals ahead of the sporting event.
She was also rounded on by senior members of the DUP – on the same day a major tourist initiative to coincide with the race was announced.
The Giro d'Italia will take place in May with a TV audience of 800m expected to follow the event.
Ms Lo spoke out amid fears Northern Ireland's image would be tarnished by the sight of emblems and paramilitary murals, and after Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said no election posters should be on the route.
Last night she admitted to being hurt by the vitriol of those behind the messages.
She is due to meet with police regarding the online abuse.
"It is sad when people personally attack you for your nationality and mimic the way Chinese people speak," she told the Belfast Telegraph.
"I pride myself on speaking for the community as a whole, I'm very neutral. Flags and sectarian murals are issues we need to have a debate about rather than shy away from them.
"They are issues a lot of people are maybe scared of speaking out about because they are afraid to."
However, DUP MP Sammy Wilson described any suggestions of removing Union flags from lampposts as "folly" – and claimed such a move could spark civil disorder.
"On this logic supporters watching the race will not be able to wave their national flag to support cyclists from here, nor indeed would Italians watching the race be able to wave their Italian flags," he said.
"Furthermore, for Anna Lo to suggest that the police would go into communities and start removing Union flags, which have been erected by communities, is a recipe for injured police officers and days of unrest. This proposal is ill-considered."
Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster said if the murals were not of a paramilitary nature they should remain to celebrate cultural heritage. The DUP MLA agreed election posters should be removed from the route, but did not address the question of flags.
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board yesterday urged people from across Ireland to take part in a range of activities planned along the route.
"We are not only welcoming hundreds of cyclists but also their families and friends, technical teams and sponsors who have come to support them.
"They will enjoy our warm hospitality, taste our local produce, see our sights and meet our people creating positive memories they will talk about when they get back to their own countries," said Ruth Burns from the Tourist Board.
Among the areas competitors will race will be the Newtownards Road, as cyclists head towards Stormont.
On day two they will pass through Whiteabbey, Carrickfergus, Larne, Ballymena and Antrim.
Ms Lo previously suggested community groups be given funding to take part in re-imaging projects, including the removal of flags and murals. She said: "The Giro d'Italia provides us with a great opportunity to show that Northern Ireland has moved beyond the politics of the past.
"As political parties were so willing to support the ban on election posters along the route, I hope they will show similar support for a ban on flags and paramilitary murals."
However, her comments were met with a racist and sectarian backlash from loyalists who posted vile messages regarding Ms Lo on Facebook and Twitter.
Ms Lo's party colleague Stewart Dickson MLA said he was disgusted by the abuse.
"Nobody deserves to be the victim of racist abuse," said Mr Dickson, whose constituency office was burnt out during flag protests. "Racism, like other forms of prejudice and hatred, should be stamped out.
"In Northern Ireland we have a proud record of standing up against racism and oppression around the world, and I am calling on everyone to denounce any racist comments or attacks when they occur here.
"It appears that many of the cowardly perpetrators have now taken down their vile racist posts, but I will still be asking the police to investigate these comments with a view to taking action."
The chairman of the Community Relations Council, Peter Osborne, said the removal of murals and flags would be like a "dysfunctional family who want to hide their behaviour when visitors come calling".
More than 200 of the world's best cyclists will travel to Northern Ireland for the Giro D'Italia The Grand Partenza stage will take place from May 9 to May 11. It will take in Belfast, Armagh and the Causeway Coast before riders head to Dublin. A television audience of 800m is expected to tune in.