Alliance stalwart Jones 'one of many in party happy to stay in UK'
Veteran speaks out after leadership front-runner Long rejects unionist tag
A senior member of the Alliance Party has said he and many others support the unionist stance of Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK.
Belfast councillor Mervyn Jones insisted his party supported Northern Ireland's link to the UK until the people voted in a referendum for a united Ireland.
It comes after Naomi Long - the sole candidate to declare for the party's leadership race - told the Belfast Telegraph earlier this week that Alliance was not a unionist party.
Nominations remain open until 5pm on Wednesday.
Mr Jones said his personal view was that he would prefer Northern Ireland to remain in the UK.
"We support the link to the UK, but if there was a referendum to leave the UK we would go along with that," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"I am happy to stay within the United Kingdom despite all the Brexit mess, which I was not in favour of.
"But there are people in the Alliance Party who would vote for a united Ireland, and I don't have a problem with that, as long as we are trying to unite the people of Northern Ireland as our primary function to build a united society.
"I have no great desire to change the party's position on that - I think most people are happy with that. It's not what drives me and it's not what drives most people in the party."
Mr Jones joined the Alliance Party in August 1970, just a few months after it was formed.
He explained that he hoped the new leader would help the party develop a new role in the Assembly.
"We are not even in the Official Opposition, so we need to think of how we are going to portray ourselves more, and I think a new leader will help that," he said.
"I think Naomi is obviously very forceful and very articulate and has the ability to do that.
"I think we are going to have to work to carve out a spot for ourselves."
The party has seen a number of members join from unionist parties, including most recently its current South Belfast MLA Paula Bradshaw.
Ms Bradshaw joined the Alliance Party following a number of years as a member of the Ulster Unionist Party and a former UCUNF election candidate.
She said: "I think with the changing demography of the Northern Ireland population, the party is well-placed to get involved in serious development work in areas where there are not any Alliance elected representatives."
On the subject of the border, she added: "The policy positions that the Alliance Party takes are determined by its Party Council.
"In six years of attending its meetings, I have never once heard the constitutional issue being raised, and so I cannot imagine this will change under Naomi's tenure as leader."
In the 1970s, Stratton Mills - Alliance's only MP prior to Naomi Long's election in East Belfast in 2010 - had previously been a member of the Ulster Unionist Party.
Former East Belfast MLA Judith Cochrane, who left politics last year after not seeking re-election to the Assembly, said Alliance did not define itself as either Unionist or Nationalist. One of the only Alliance Party members to ever support Irish nationalism publicly was former South Belfast MLA Anna Lo, who in 2014 said a united Ireland would be "better placed economically, socially and politically".
The then Alliance leader David Ford supported Ms Lo and said the party had members that both backed remaining in the UK as well as members that aspired to a united Ireland. He declined to comment at that time on which view he personally supported.
The majority of Alliance's elected representatives have succeeded in unionist-majority constituencies, which include North Down, Strangford and East Antrim.