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Lo Irish unity comments will not damage party says deputy leader

Published 21/03/2014

John Manley Political Reporter

ALLIANCE deputy leader Naomi Long believes she will not be damaged at the polls by the party's European election candidate's support for a united Ireland.

South Belfast MLA Anna Lo caused a storm of controversy when she told The Irish News she advocated the removal of the border. She said a unified ireland would be "better placed economically, socially and politically".

Ms lo said irish unity was unlikely to happen in her lifetime and was only possible with the consent of the majority of people in the north.

Her comments provoked fierce criticism from unionists. DUP minister Arlene Foster called for the Hong Kong-born MLA to apologise for describing herself as "anti colonial", while Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson said her remarks on Irish unity meant alliance could no longer lay claim to the middle ground.

But last night east Belfast MP Naomi long - the alliance representative who potentially stands to lose most Electorally from Ms lo's comments -- said she did not regret her party colleague's comments.

Mrs long, who in 2010 unseated DUP leader Peter Robinson with a 1,500-vote majority, said she was surprised the remarks had attracted so much attention.

"alliance since its foundation in 1970 has been a cross-community party and i'm not sure what that means if everyone in it had the same view on every issue," she said.

"When we say we are for everyone it isn't just a slogan it's actually a reality and has always been a reality."

The east Belfast MP cited alliance leader David Ford's conference speech from two years ago when he said the party was for "unionist, nationalist and people disinterested in the border".

Mrs long said she did not know whether others in the party shared Ms lo's views on irish unity because it was "not a debate we have on a routine basis".

She said the party was not divided along a "binary cleavage of unionist or nationalist".

asked whether Ms lo's remarks would damage the party's electoral prospects and Mrs long's own chances of being re-elected , the alliance deputy leader said: "i don't see why it should. Anna made her personal views known after stating party policy remained in place." Arlene Foster said it was "not entirely surprising" to hear Irish nationalist aspirations coming from within the alliance party.

"Many people have commented for some time about a gradual drift within that party and the attitude among many members moving from being agnostic on the union to antagonistic," the Fermanagh-South Tyrone MLA said.

Jim Nicholson said alliance was attempting to "distance northern ire-land from the United Kingdom".

"To believe that a united Ireland would be economically viable is politically and economically naive - northern Ireland is unquestionably better off as part of the United Kingdom, the fifth largest economy on the planet," he said. ni21 leader Basil Mccrea said Ms lo's assertion that partition was "artificial" and to describe herself as anti-colonial was the "language of the past".

* 'FOR EVERYONE': Alliance Party deputy leader Naomi Long, on right, has said she is surprised remarks by party member Anna Lo, on left, in support of a united Ireland has attracted so much attention