by Stephen Tall on May 30, 2014
Alliance Party member for Belfast South in the Northern Ireland Assembly
Reason: For championing non-sectarian tolerance.
Now what we in the mainland euphemistically referred to as ‘The Troubles’ are over (ish), Northern Ireland rarely gets a look-in in UK politics. That changed this week, though, when Alliance Party MLA Anna Lo dramatically announced she was quitting politics – and possibly leaving the country she’s made her home for the past three decades – following comments made by First Minister Peter Robinson in support of a controversial pastor who denounced Islam.
Defending Pastor James McConnell of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast, who described Islam as “heathen” and “satanic”, Robinson told the Irish News newspaper he would not trust Muslims involved in violence or who fully subscribed to Sharia law, but that he would “trust them to go to the shops” for him. Though seemingly oblivious to the condescension of his remark, Robinson has at least issued the traditional non-apology apology for any hurt caused: “if anyone interpreted them that way of course I would apologise.”
Anna Lo was unimpressed: “To support a lunatic who makes remarks like that is adding fuel to the flames in Northern Ireland. In the last few weeks there have been two to three racist incidents per day in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland.”
She was almost one of those statistics, she told The Guardian, after being followed by a loyalist mob when leaving an east Belfast shopping centre during the European election campaign: “They started hurling abuse at me and I decided to get out of Connswater shopping centre as quickly as possible. About three or four individuals then followed me to the car park but I kept ahead of them walking as quickly as I could. Even when I got inside my car there was a young girl who climbed out of the wound-down window of a parked car and started shouting vile things at me. If I hadn’t decided to act quickly and get out of there I don’t know what would have happened to me.”
This is the price Anna Lo has paid for her championing of non-sectarian tolerance and respect in a country that has been riven by discord. Here, for example, is what she told her party’s conference last month:
I make no apologies for highlighting that Alliance is a party which champions and cherishes diversity. What saddens me is that the focus on my comments reflects that there are those, with their orange and green lenses, who are incapable of seeing beyond sectarianism. They either can’t grasp the concept of a cross-community party, or they won’t, because cross-community politics threatens their position. Tackling that narrow-mindedness is this party’s responsibility. But it is also our privilege – as a forward thinking and progressive party we will have the privilege of delivering Northern Ireland from the shadows of the past and showing the world all we have to be proud of.
For her courage and determination, in taking a positive stand by trying to unite people, Anna Lo is a Liberal Hero.
I’m playing catch-up here, with some nominations I haven’t had chance to blog about but deserve recognition:
Theresa May (Home Secretary): for her courageous speech to the Police Federation bluntly setting out the reforms it needs to make in order to regain public trust.
Mark Carney (Bank of England governor): for warning of the dangers to the British economy of our failure to build enough houses and the likely need to scale back the Coalition’s Help to Buy scheme that’s further stoking the market.
Eric Schmidt (Google’s executive chairman): for highlighting the risks that the European Court of Justice’s ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling will harm the public’s right to know, with public figures seeking to restrict access to publicly available information.
* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.