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'I was worried my comments on Irish unity would hurt my colleagues' election hopes'

The party persuaded Anna Lo to stand in the European Election in 2014. An interview given during that campaign, in which she spoke of her support for an united Ireland, caused her more problems

Published 25/10/2016

In researching this book, I have been dreading having to re-read the newspaper articles and to relive the horror and stress I went through after making comments in an interview with John Manley of the Irish News regarding my "aspiration" for a united Ireland. In that interview, I expressed the view that a 32-county state would be "better-placed economically, socially and politically" and that it was "very artificial" to divide up the island of Ireland and to make one corner of it part of the United Kingdom.

The Press and the television coverage over my remarks went on for days - in their view Alliance was supposed to be a "soft" unionist party. With just eight weeks before the May elections, the commentators described my "revelation" as "setting the cat among the pigeons" within the party and declared that it would give unionist parties another stick to beat us with.

The interview with the Irish News had taken place in my office in the presence of the Alliance Press officer on Tuesday, March 18, 2014, at lunchtime, in between the debates, and had lasted for almost 40 minutes. During that time, I had answered John Manley's list of prepared questions about the Alliance Party, the Assembly and the European elections.

It was towards the end of the interview that John had asked me my view on the constitutional issue. I had set out the Alliance policy supporting the principle of consent enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement - that a united Ireland would only come into being if it were the wish of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland. I had gone on to say that, personally, I would like to see a united Ireland, but that it may not happen in my lifetime.

I should have stopped there - I have no idea why I went on to talk about the border being artificial and my anti-colonial views. I can only put it down to John's very skilful interviewing techniques and my own naivete.

I was flabbergasted by the media storm raised by my remarks. I was a known liberal with a more progressive perspective than some other politicians in the Assembly and this was not the first time I had spoken in public both about my support for a united Ireland as a long-term vision and my distaste for colonialism from my personal experience of growing up in a British colony. My opinions had never raised any eyebrows before.

My main concerns, now, were for my party colleagues fighting for their seats on local councils. Those elections were due to take place at the same time as the European ones in May. I was consumed with worry that my remarks had jeopardised their chances.

Trevor Lunn was confronted by one long-term Alliance voter, who said that she would never vote for him again and that the Alliance Party should send me packing on a one-way ticket back to Hong Kong.

I could understand party colleagues' concerns and I blamed nobody but myself. I hardly slept for nights. I thought about resigning, but I knew that would only make it worse.

However, the party united behind me with unfailing support - something I will always remember and be grateful for. Shortly after the media storm and, as usual, some racist social-media reactions, I made a speech at the Alliance Party conference, making it clear that I refused to be reduced to one label, just as the Alliance Party cannot be reduced to the labels of nationalist, or unionist. I highlighted that Alliance is a cross-community party (something the media seemed not to comprehend) that champions and cherishes diversity.

I pointed out that what saddened me was that the focus on my comments reflected that there were those, with their orange and green lenses, who were incapable of seeing beyond sectarianism. I ended by saying, "Don't call me 'nationalist'; don't call me 'unionist'. Call me 'for everyone'. Call me 'Alliance'." To my surprise and great delight, I received a standing ovation.

It was hard to know whether my remarks on a united Ireland made any difference to the party votes in the local-government elections, since local council boundaries had been redrawn. However, I received the best result ever for the party in any European elections, with more than 44,000 votes and 7.1% of the total vote share.

Although I did not win a seat, I was pleased with the result and relieved that I had delivered the goal the party had been aiming for.

However, I was truly glad to see the end of that campaign, which reinforced my decision not to stand in another election ever again. Politics is not for the faint hearted.

  • The Place I Call Home by Anna Lo is out on Thursday, £9.99 from Amazon

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