OBV Profile: Anna Manwah Lo

Lo, elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in March 2007, got straight into action by outlining the government’s first policy on the racial equality strategy. As part of that strategy she is calling for the raising of standards for the protection of ethnic minority communities.

Speaking out about the devolution of Northern Ireland and the changes taking place she says: “It’s certainly an exciting time for Northern Ireland considering we haven’t had a government for a very long time. Until now there hasn’t been any local accountability.”

Lo, 57, was the chief executive of the Chinese Welfare Association (CWA), recently standing down from the role which she had been in for the past 10 years. She first joined the association as a community interpreter and then later became the association’s chief executive in 1997.

The CWA has lobbied successfully for the race relations audit in NI and successfully lobbied for the first ethnic minority shelter housing scheme. Lo also mentions how the organisation raised 1.4 million pounds to build the first ever purpose built Chinese centre in Northern Ireland.

She was one of the founders of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic minorities, becoming its vice-chair in 1994, and is chair of the South Belfast Roundtable on Racism, a project she initiated after a series of violent racist attacks against people in the area.

On top of these responsibilities Lo is also an active member of the Alliance Party, a party she joined because of her belief in it being a “cross community party”, explaining that it was the only natural home for any ethnic minority person who was not born in NI.

Born in Hong Kong, Lo, first came to London in 1974 at the age of 23. She says that she had no political influences in Hong Kong because during her formative years there was very little democracy.

Lo explains that in Hong Kong the government actively discouraged people from talking about politics. She told OBV: “I remember being called a “leftist” by my teacher, because I led a class revolt as I felt that the teachers were not doing their job. It was a really feared word at the time – the worst thing to be called.”

She points out that there are a lot of similarities between Hong Kong and London, however, she found it quite hard to adjust to NI. Lo explains: “NI was really in the grip of troubles. The whole city centre would shut down by 6.30pm. There were restrictions and you had to be searched it you were going in or out of the centre. There was no entertainment, restaurants or cinemas because they were all bombed out.”

She moved to NI with her now ex-husband, who is Irish, when they got engaged in London. In 1993 she qualified as a social worker from the University of Ulster. She then went on to work in social services as well as for the charity Barnardos for five years before entering politics.

Although she refers to herself as a “neo politician” she says she was always interested in politics and due to her former husband being a political journalist she was able to meet many politicians.

Lo was encouraged to get more involved by the Alliance Party’s deputy leader Naomi Long, who suggested she would make a good politician. Both were members of the Belfast City Council Good Relations Panel at the time.

Her decision to take up the suggestion seemed practical. She says: “For 10 years I’ve lobbied politicians and councillors on issues of race equality, and been in many committees. I felt that it would be better if I was actually in government to make those changes rather than depend on lobbying people to do the job for me.”

In Lo’s opinion, the main challenge that NI is facing is that it is “a divided society” – in political parties and filtering down into the community. She believes that it is important that the agenda for change is pushed through promoting community relations and desegregating communities.

The future prospects in NI look promising. One of Lo’s goals is to see NI really embrace multiculturalism and embrace an inclusive progressive community, involving all sections of society.

She adds: “Personally I hope to do the best for my constituency; it is much more diverse than it was 10 years ago – we have moved forward an awful lot and so we have to acknowledge that.”