Ford backs Lo after solo run on a united Ireland sparks row
The Alliance leader has defended Anna Lo's declaration that she would vote for a united Ireland if there was a referendum – insisting that it is within party policy.
Ms Lo made it clear she only wanted unity by consent and was currently working for a shared future within Northern Ireland.
However, the remarks have caused concern in some sections of the party, ahead of European and council elections.
In a Belfast Telegraph interview, David Ford said: "Anna set out party policy which accepts the complex set of relationships defined in 1998 (the Good Friday Agreement) and that is where we stand collectively. She then went on to talk about the potential if there is a referendum, but as far as I can see there is no likelihood of a referendum in the near future.
"I was surprised that bit was pulled out of her interview. It is entirely in line with comments I have made that we are a party which has people who have different views on the long-term constitutional future, but what unites us is our desire to build a united community in Northern Ireland."
Asked how he would vote himself, he replied: "I believe it is premature to express a view. Anna chose to express a view. Others would express another view. Most of us, I think, wouldn't bother.
"The likelihood that there would be a referendum which would make any difference on the border is far into the future."
One long-serving councillor in east Belfast admitted he had concerns over how Ms Lo's comments might affect his chances. Mervyn Jones said Alliance backed the Agreement, which supports Northern Ireland remaining in the UK until a majority decides otherwise.
"This is clearly the case, but within the Alliance Party you'll get people who have aspirations one way or another," he said.
"But I don't know why she came out with it at this particular time. That was her view, I don't share it. I was surprised but the party's view is still the same as it was. I am running again, I'm a bit worried about how this will play when I canvass. We will have to see."
Former deputy leader Seamus Close said the remarks would damage the party's vote.
"I think the nicest way I can describe it is her being naive and not fully appreciating the ramifications this could have on the party vote. Not only her own, but also the like of Naomi Long in East Belfast," he said.
"The unionist opponents of Alliance will be clapping their hands with glee. Any chance of attracting those within the unionist parties who may have been wavering is all down the plughole."
For over a year Alliance has been under pressure from unionists for backing a policy of limiting the flying of the Union flag to designated days in Belfast.
But Mr Ford said: "The flags is now 16 months ago and in nearly all of those months I've signed more letters welcoming new members than I have signed in any year previously."
Ms Lo's comments threaten to overshadow this weekend's party conference, where she will be showcased as the Euro candidate.
Mr Ford has high hopes for the poll-topping South Belfast MLA.
He said: "Our aim is to achieve easily the best Alliance vote ever achieved in a European election." He cited recent Belfast Telegraph LucidTalk polls which showed Alliance building support.
Polls show Alliance nipping at the heels of the UUP and not far behind the SDLP.
STORY SO FAR
Anna Lo, Alliance's Euro candidate, kicked up a storm when she told the Irish News that she would vote for Irish unity if there was a referendum, citing her "anti-colonial" views. She argued that "for the corner of Ireland to be part of the United Kingdom is very artificial".