The Alliance Party has presented a united front in defence of Anna Lo after she said that she believed Northern Ireland would be better off as part of a united Ireland.
The party’s annual conference on Saturday came just two days after Ms Lo became the first senior party figure to make public her preference for the removal of the border, arguing that the Province would be better off politically, socially and economically as part of an all-island nation.
Senior party figures united behind Ms Lo on Saturday, with deputy leader Naomi Long making clear her support for the European election candidate and former Ulster Unionist Paula Bradshaw stating that she was a firm unionist but supported Ms Lo’s right to say what she said.
But there were glimpses of unease among some party veterans. Castlereagh councillor Geraldine Rice said she was shocked by Ms Lo’s comments while another man at the conference told the BBC he feared it could cost votes.
When asked about that man’s view, Alliance leader David Ford yesterday risked another row when he observed that the party member was “elderly”.
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, who was a guest speaker on Saturday, said he was “disappointed” at the reaction to Ms Lo’s comments. He said the reaction suggested that some people thought she should not be able to aspire to a united Ireland.
In his speech on Saturday, Mr Ford attempted to largely ignore the controversy around Ms Lo’s views. He told a sizeable audience in the La Mon Hotel that Alliance has “a growing band of activists, despite intimidation and threats against some of our members”.
Rounding on Executive colleagues, he said there had been “far too many examples of failure on the part of the Executive” and added: “If it is not plain failure, we get claims of steps forward that prove to be nothing but an illusion.”
And he highlighted East Belfast MP Naomi Long’s work to “clean up” party funding by securing a Westminster amendment which means that “all donations over the specified amount made since January 1 will have to be made public in the future”.
He said that was “an end to the concerns about a culture of brown envelopes”.
Mr Ford also spoke at length about the failure of the Haass talks, saying that “flags murals and other paramilitary symbols...[are] sectarian, paramilitary-led marking out of territory. It’s not about culture; it’s not about historical commemoration. As far as I’m concerned, a UVF flag is a paramilitary flag even if it says 1912 in the corner, and anyone who believes otherwise is naïve.”
He called for an enforceable code of conduct for parading “that recognises and rewards good behaviour by both paraders and protesters, and punishes bad and unlawful behaviour”.
He rounded on nationalists too, asking why the SDLP had not signed up to supporting the National Crime Agency (NCA).
But large tracts of the speech were aimed at the main unionist parties. He said: “What on earth are elected representatives of the DUP and UUP – supposedly parties of law and order – doing sitting on a committee organising an unlawful protest camp...?
“I’ll tell you what they’re doing. They are there under the direction of the leadership of their parties, desperately trying to play to the electoral audience and ensure that their votes hold up.”