David Ford: the next stop for Alliance is Europe
Leader tips Lo to take party's first seat in Brussels
Alliance leader David Ford says his party is firmly on the up – so much so he is eyeing a seat in Europe.
The MLA believes that the party could record its strongest performance in Europe at next year's poll and he has hinted that Anna Lo is being considered as the best candidate to bring home its first seat in Brussels.
Mr Ford spoke to the Belfast Telegraph ahead of Alliance's annual conference which will be held next Saturday on the outskirts of east Belfast.
The party gathering comes against the backdrop of continuing protests sparked by Belfast City Council's decision to fly the Union flag at Belfast City Hall on designated days only.
Alliance politicians faced a backlash after backing a motion not to fly the flag year round.
Mr Ford stands by the stance taken by his councillors in Belfast, and insists it has done no damage.
"That is how I would have voted had I been a member of Belfast City Council. Our position reflects equality and legal guidance. It was also in line with the majority of councils in Britain and was aimed at promoting a shared society."
East Belfast is Alliance's cockpit constituency, where Naomi Long, the party's sole MP, won the seat from DUP leader Peter Robinson last time around. In the next election the expectation is that the DUP candidate will be Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson.
Before last year's flags vote, unionists singled out Ms Long, who is not a member of the council, in 40,000 leaflets they circulated criticising Alliance's designated days policy.
Mr Ford rounded on Gavin Robinson for, he claimed, failing to give a strong enough lead on the flags issue.
He argued that Ms Long could gain more votes than she will lose from the flags issue.
"Naomi is a good, hard-working public representative and that will stand to her," he said.
"There may be some loss of support from people who voted for her last time but I believe it will be more than offset by votes from elsewhere, including Ulster Unionists who realise that they can't beat the DUP but we can. Remember that Naomi won on the largest swing in any constituency in the UK."
He believes that Alliance's focus on issues like a shared future can mobilise voters elsewhere.
"If anyone thinks that the only thing that matters in their life is whether the border is there or not, Alliance is not the party for them," he conceded, rejecting calls for a border referendum as "irrelevant for at least a decade".
He accused Sinn Fein, which is campaigning for a referendum, and the DUP, which is considering the proposal, of seeking "to distract attention from their utter failure to engage with real issues like a shared future and social disadvantage".
He rules out withdrawing from government and going into opposition unless there is legislation to allow for this.
"If we walked out of the Department of Justice it would deliver a very severe shock to the system" he said.
Recent opinion polls suggest Alliance is gaining support, especially in the east of the province. These include two LucidTalk polls for the Belfast Telegraph in May and November and a BBC IPSOS Mori poll this month. They show Alliance on 10-11.2%, compared to 7.7% in last year's Assembly elections. If this trend continues they could conceivably challenge the UUP and SDLP.
Back on Europe, he predicts Alliance will score its highest ever vote in next year's election.
The previous high was 6.8% in 1979. South Belfast MLA Anna Lo is one name being considered.
"Anna would be a very good candidate for Europe but she is not the only name being discussed," he insisted. "She caught the popular imagination when she increased the Alliance vote from 6% to 22% in South Belfast."