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Anna Lo received threats over flag stance but we were right to try to achieve compromise

Anna Lo was not unduly concerned by a November 2012 motion about flying the Union flag above Belfast City Hall. However, things were soon to take a violent turn

Published 25/10/2016

Anna Lo
Anna Lo
The Loyalist flag protest outside Naomi Long’s east Belfast Alliance office
The Place I Call Home by Anna Lo is out on Thursday, £9.99 from Amazon

My constituency manager, Councillor Catherine Curran, elected in 2011, was a breath of fresh air in Belfast City Council, bringing many new ideas and ample dynamism to the establishment.

However, she got quite worried about a November 2012 motion about the flying of the Union flag above the City Hall building. I was not particularly concerned, as I doubted anyone ever noticed it being flown at all. I was to be proven very wrong.

Sinn Fein had become the largest party in the council since the 2011 election and wanted either to remove the Union flag, or fly both the Irish and British flags together above the iconic seat of the Belfast local authority.

Sinn Fein, supported by the SDLP, put forward a motion to council to stop flying the Union flag. Colleagues in my party, which was the third-largest party in the council and held the balance of power between the nationalist and unionist blocs, proposed an amendment to fly the flag only on designated days, as was already the practice in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the unionist-dominated Craigavon and Lisburn councils. This position of compromise had also been recommended by the Northern Ireland Equality Commission.

On December 3, 2012, the evening of the debate, the council passed the motion to fly the Union flag only on designated days. The Alliance amendment was supported both by Sinn Fein and the SDLP, but not by any unionist councillors.

This was the first time Sinn Fein and SDLP voted to support the flying of the flag on a council building, but not much attention was drawn to that fact.

However, weeks before the debate, the DUP, with the help of the UUP, had printed and distributed 40,000 leaflets throughout east Belfast.

The leaflets were in Alliance colours and contained telephone numbers for our headquarters (where my office was also based) and the east Belfast office.

I was living in rented accommodation in the Knocknagoney area at the time and received one of the leaflets through my letterbox. It called on people to protest about the Alliance proposal and, I have no doubt, was intended to inflame tension and to attack the party ahead of the 2015 Westminster election.

And inflame tension it certainly did. Protests and riots erupted in Belfast city centre and other areas and continued for months, badly damaging trade in the city, not to mention Northern Ireland's international reputation.

A couple of times, as I travelled from the city centre home to east Belfast, I met with protests on the streets, which could be quite scary. It saddened me to hear that many young Protestant men got criminal records as a consequence of these protests, which could damage their future employment and travel prospects. They were pawns being used in a political game.

Particular attention focused on Naomi Long (left), who had taken the Westminster seat from Peter Robinson in 2010.

Anyone with a brain could see it made no sense to blame Naomi, who, not being a local councillor, had no role in the Belfast City Council decision.

Nonetheless, she was made a scapegoat, encouraged by the DUP. Her constituency office was repeatedly attacked and she, personally, received death threats. Many other Alliance councillors and MLAs received threats, too. Stewart Dickson's constituency office in Carrickfergus was burnt down and the home of two Bangor councillors, Christine and Michael Bower, was attacked, with their baby daughter inside.

I received threats, too, from people who claimed they knew where I lived. A police patrol started roaming the small private development in Knocknagoney, where I was renting a house. At Christmas, my son Conall and his partner, Fiona, visited me and could not help noticing the police presence on my street.

A Sunday newspaper also received a bullet along with my picture and phoned me to ask if I wanted the story to be published.

I declined, telling them there was no point in giving the bullies more media attention.

Anyway, if they had wanted to shoot me they would have done it, rather than wasting a bullet in the post.

In that moment I was more grateful than ever for my status as the only Chinese-born parliamentarian in Europe. Assassinating me would attract the worst kind of publicity to this corner of the continent. I did not think they would be foolish enough to try.

It was a worrying and testing time for all the public representatives from the party, but, despite the turmoil, we knew we were right to put forward the proposal to keep the Union flag flying on designated days and to try to achieve a compromise in a divided society.

If anything, the furore stiffened our resolve to tackle the deep-seated divisions in Northern Ireland.

Belfast Telegraph

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