Future from the past: why city regeneration needs to be authentic and involve people

Nearly sixty years ago, Jane Jacobs wrote that “designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.” Her work is the basis for city planning across the world. She advocated dense, walkable, and authentic neighbourhoods. She demanded that our places make use of their uniqueness. She humanised place. Above all, she demonstrated through her own actions that people must be involved in our cities’ futures.

Joining the Committee to Save Washington Park moved Jacobs from criticism to activism. It also helped stop Robert Moses. New York’s “master builder” wanted to drive the Lower Manhattan Expressway through the heart of Greenwich Village. Jacobs became a hero to people who believe that our places are nothing without the human beings who live and work there.

 

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Cliclovia, Bogotá – 29 July 2017

 

This idea is now central to how our cities are changing. Yet, too often, “urban regeneration” as actually delivered by cities ends up destroying the very distinctiveness and authenticity upon which their vibrancy depends. Development is not always regeneration. Development that takes no account of the place in which it happens is not regenerating anything. Development very often has “no hint of individuality or whim or surprise, no hint that here is a city with a tradition and flavor all its own”; more words from Jacobs.

Regeneration, by its very meaning, has to reflect what has come before. Ensuring an authentic sense of place means making reference to a city’s past. That is not the same as being trapped by the past. It simply means that character and distinctiveness do not magic themselves out of thin air.

An authentic sense of place also means involving people. Successful cities are the ones with the confidence to use the imaginations of their people. They recognise the two key lessons of Jacobs’ work: that distinctiveness is crucial and that people have to be involved in how our places are shaped.

Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” He may as well have been talking about place. The very character of our places affects us as people. Hanoverians are different from Berliners because its maritime heritage is different from Berlin’s political one; Angelenos are different from New Yorkers because of sunshine and beaches versus skyscrapers and pastrami; Belfastians are different from Edinburghers because of ships and linen against a castle and Adam Smith.

No formula exists for character or sense of a place. Nor is there is an easy way to measure it. But we absolutely know it when we see and feel it.

We know that it combines the tangible and intangible, the ordinary and extraordinary. It is, in varying degrees for various people, the look and feel of buildings, whether stone, brick or glass, the ways in which we use or don’t use our public spaces, maritime or landlocked, industrial grit or genteel merchant city.

More than anything else, it is people who articulate that character. Through the stories we tell and the welcomes we provide, people give a face to that character. So if our places have the power to shape us as people then we must have the power to shape our places.

A little over a week ago I embarked on a Winston Churchill Fellowship to explore how cities involve people in their regeneration. The research is built around two projects with which I’m involved. Successful Belfast is encouraging people to be involved in Belfast’s future in enterprising ways. Belfast City of Music has the ambition of telling the city’s story through music on an international stage.

Successful cities have a vibrancy built from a distinctive identity and civic participation. My travels will take me to six such cities in Colombia and the US. They will involve exploring the enterprising work encouraged by the Knight Foundation based in Miami, learning about Citizen Culture and the City of Music programme in Bogotá, seeing the work of the Moravia Cultural Centre in Medellín, looking at a city centre car park experiment in Lexington, experiencing the amazing energy of Chattanooga as ‘Enterprise City’, and finding out what makes Nashville tick as ‘Music City’.

All of it is possible because Churchill believed in the power of people to deliver change. Churchill also had the confidence to be Churchill. We must make sure that we have the confidence to truly regenerate our cities in authentic and meaningful ways. We must use the stories and energies of people to shape that regeneration.

Peter Ackroyd writes in “Venice: Pure City” that all cities “began as cemeteries.” It might be extreme, though accurate in the case of Venice, but the sentiment he is expressing, that all cities have a past, holds true. It means that we need to use that past to make sure that our cities remain living.

P.S. Applications for 2018 Winston Churchill Fellowships are open until 19th September. If you have an idea you want to explore, apply for the Fellowship!

 

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The future is open. A farewell to the United Kingdom.

It was a strange defence of the Union. Over-scripted and wooden, Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, chastised Scotland’s nationalists for “playing politics with the future of our country.” Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, had just announced plans for a fresh independence referendum. London was apparently caught off-guard. But if the best that May can muster is that “politics is not a game”, then Scotland will soon be the world’s newest sovereign state.

Across the North Channel, talks are underway to form a new government in Northern Ireland. They are unlikely to be fruitful. The previous executive collapsed amid a major financial scandal, at one time lauded for being the result of ‘normal’ politics. Even before actual voting in the March 2nd election, politics had returned to tribal normality. Yet, in a shock result, Unionism lost its majority status in Northern Ireland for the first time.

Scotland and Northern Ireland share a deep cultural heritage. Ulster-Scots identity has forged much of what is recognisably ‘Northern Irish’. These bonds were cemented by Union. But the most prescient bond at present, that they are the two nations of the United Kingdom which voted to remain in the European Union, may mean the end of the Union.

Brexit has upended political calculations. Unionists and Brexiteers bat away any talk of danger for the Union. But they ignore three issues driving change.

First is the arrogance of a nativist nationalism which is condescending in its smugness. Second, negative divides abound: whether between people with different viewpoints or between regions, difference is framed in how bad the ‘other’ is. Third, and perhaps the most potent long-term force, is that young people want to live in an open, plural, outward looking society. The UK is no longer that.

In British terms, Melanie Philips gave the most recent example of national arrogance. She is but one in a long line of national chauvinists from Farage to Fox to Foster. Populist nationalists are now household names across Europe. Their success is built upon stressing a national strength which revels in turning away Syrian child refugees and ignores the irony of free trade as the answer to closing borders. It is an inhuman approach that puts greater value on native lives than human lives.

This world view, complimented by the left’s obsession with identity politics, is driving people further apart. People increasingly see the nationality or the ideology, not the person. Civil debate barely exists. As the Economist points out, Owen Jones’s decision to leave social media because of the abuse received is a depressing symptom of our inability to agree to disagree.

Furthermore, regionalism has driven a wedge into a British identity. Scotland is different from Lincolnshire, which is different from London. Past unity is no indicator of future prosperity. Without a positive vision for what the UK is, division will become ever more normal.

Which brings us to the ultimate divide of our times: that of open versus closed societies. Perhaps the greatest driver for the changes which are happening in Scotland and Northern Ireland is that, in the main, people under 40 want to live in places where people don’t care about skin colour or with whom you sleep.

Two decades ago it was easy to identify the UK as an open and progressive place. In a Northern Irish context, the Union worked. Irish society was defined by a national claustrophobia. That has changed fundamentally. Two years ago Irish people voted overwhelmingly to support same sex marriage. Thousands of people under the age of 40 returned home just to vote in an uncoordinated and hugely emotional expression of making sure that Ireland was on the right side of history. The cathartic impact of this cannot be properly expressed. And what was simply a moment in time has, with hindsight, become one of the defining moments of Ireland as a socially progressive, creative, and open society.

Scotland’s desire to remain part of the EU speaks to the embrace of being part of a bigger whole. The results of the Dutch elections, with a massive rise in support for liberal parties amongst educated millennial voters, is further evidence that the issue goes beyond the UK’s borders. But, it also highlights the divides between people who want to embrace the world and those who want to shut borders.

Chris Deering, writing before Sturgeon’s announcement, concluded in the Financial Times that “The UK may not see out the decade”. Writing about Northern Ireland’s election results, Fintan O’Toole declared in the Guardian that “a wide crack has opened in the foundations of the UK.” To survive, the Union needs a radical but realistically positive vision. People in Scotland and Northern Ireland need to have an emotional attachment to it. Otherwise, the crack won’t be papered over.

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Ruth Davidson and the power of change

Ruth Davidson doesn’t shy away from a fight. In 2011, at just 32, she became leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. For almost two decades the Tories have been an afterthought in Scottish politics. They’ve had one MP since 2001 and averaged the middle teens in numbers of seats in the Scottish Parliament until earlier this year. In May the party won 31 seats. Much of the credit lies with Davidson. It is only fitting that her party’s electoral performance has made her Leader of the Opposition in Scotland.

Davidson was in Belfast recently to deliver the annual Amnesty International Pride Lecture. Displaying undoubted charisma on stage, that intangible quality that politicians crave, she swept her audience along with her. They were an audience largely receptive to her message. But the qualities that have made Davidson talked about as a potential national figure for the Conservatives were all too apparent.

For some people, changing minds and attitudes is about believing they are right and the other side is just wrong. The problem, of course, is that the other side believes the same thing. The result is predictable. Davidson’s speech struck a chord for offering an alternative way to change minds: make it personal, be positive, and stop beating people over the head.

Her message has particular resonance in Northern Ireland. For a variety of reasons, the region’s civic conversations become stuck in issues relating to the past. While coffee shops and rooftop bars have replaced bombs and bullets, some things change more slowly. Belfast’s politics are still shaped by religion and by the conflicts of 800-years. Abortion is still illegal, bars still close at 1am, gay people still cannot marry.

A former broadcast journalist, Davidson knows the importance of language and imagery. Speaking about the campaign for same-sex marriage, she talked about herself, her faith, her family, and her identity. She made the abstract personal. It was a masterclass in securing social change. In a place obsessed by labels and identity, Davidson spoke of being a “practicing Christian…a protestant…a Unionist…engaged to a Catholic Irishwoman”. She positively spoke about how equal marriage doesn’t divide communities but is simply “about the people of Northern Ireland being afforded the same rights as everybody else”.

Much of the opposition to equal marriage in Northern Ireland comes from protestant churches and Unionists, those who favour being part of the UK. Davidson deployed her own faith and identity as a protestant, Presbyterian and Unionist to say that “Unionists and Presbyterians should feel they have moral permission to back equal marriage. Not just because it’s no threat to traditional marriage or freedom of religion, but also because we know that it has backing from all parts of society”.

But underlying everything Davidson spoke about was a confidence that change happens when the time is right. The first challenge for those who want change is to make the time right. For those who want it, change doesn’t come quickly enough, while for those opposed it often happens all too fast. Demographic change around the world has made equal marriage seem like a foregone conclusion. In Northern Ireland 70% of people are in favour; amongst 16-34 year olds that figure is 85%, dropping to 47% in favour amongst over 65s. It is a pattern borne out across the West, but it does not mean simply waiting for the fait accompli.

That Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK or Ireland where gay people cannot marry is a quirk of local politics. It is a victim of legislative chicanery rather than sweeping public opposition: petitions of concern, whereby cross-community majorities are needed, have been deployed in the local assembly on five occasions. A simple majority of assembly members voted in favour of equal marriage in November 2015 but only four Unionists voted for the measure. The Bill failed.

Making the time right means engaging with people who think differently. Some people will always fear change, even if time is not on their side. For some in Northern Ireland, equal marriage is a change which their fundamental beliefs cannot accommodate. For others, their opposition is about fearing that their world will be changed irrevocably. Breaking down that fear is the responsibility of anyone who wants to secure social change of any kind. It is about a reality where both sides respect their right to disagree but accept their responsibilities to wider society.

Ruth Davidson highlighted the example of Trevor Lunn. An assembly member who previously voted against equal marriage, Lunn changed his vote last November after listening to constituents. Lunn happened to be in the audience for her lecture. When asked afterwards if he was happy to be there, he replied simply, “yes, I’m comfortable here”. That’s what change sounds like.  

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Identity from a map is never a good starting point

Humans have long pondered what makes up our identity. Recent research shows moral characteristics are more important than memories. Some of us emphasise our individual identities, some our collective ones. Whatever the various aspects that make up our identity, as the defining feature of who we are, having one that is clear and strong is important.

David Brooks writes that “Strong identities can come only when people are embedded in a rich social fabric.” He cites new work looking at “separability amid situatedness” as a way to enhance social connections. The thinking: in an increasingly fragmented world, where individuality is prized above solidarity, we want the ability to go off and do our own thing but still feel connected to community.

The Economist has also analysed the decline of social democracy in Europe, identifying a precipitous drop in support for the parties of class solidarity since 2005. It blames four issues: “[the left’s] own success, structural change in the economy, a reduced fear of political extremes and the decline of monolithic class groups.”

Taken together, these trends point to a reorganising of social identities. Yet, at the same time, national identities remain strong. Indeed, as part of that reduced fear of political extremes, they are becoming stronger for some. Donald Trump’s message that borders can be closed and Americans can be protected as Americans has won him many votes. Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Viktor Orban, all define their political philosophy around a national identity.

Yet, defining oneself around national identity is dangerous. For one, defining a national identity is messy. Gordon Brown once tried to promote a British identity. The core of his argument was that a defence of liberty ran throughout British history as a “golden thread.” Britons were indifferent. His campaign failed. Some will argue that British identity is nothing more than a flag and a Queen, that English and Scottish and Welsh identities are more meaningful to people.

A bigger danger is the ability of national identity to become a harbinger of doom. It requires a closing of minds, a dehumanising of the other.

One hundred years ago, the Easter Rising marked the apogee of a particular Irish identity: romantic but bloody. It is an identity with which Ireland has long struggled. Those rebels would have disagreed with Brown. For them and many others around the globe, Britishness equated oppression, not liberty. But their actions in April 1916 have defined an Irish identity that still sits uncomfortably with many on the island.

For some the actions of 1916 are a point of pride, a moment that launched a path towards independence. Some ask “Why would anyone in Ireland not be proud of the Easter Rising?” Others ask how is it possible to be proud of such a violent birth, especially one that has spawned so much division on so small an island?

At its heart, the Rising, and the expression of national identity, cemented a them and us mentality. “The British” included the neighbours of the rebels. They too were fathers and brothers and sons. They too were mothers and sisters and daughters. Britain’s reaction to the Rising ensured the marytyrdom of its leaders. It produced a retrospective democratic mandate in the 1918 General Election. But the violence of the Rising is what produced a negative definition of Irishness and from which dissident republicans continue to claim an intellectual inheritance.

The real danger in all of this is the ease with which identity becomes nothing more than a label.

Three issues come to the fore. First, our identity should be thoughtful and considered. The country in which we are born is an accident. My identity should be something I choose, and spend considerable time in the choosing. It is not something automatic. Such roads are lazy.

Secondly, old identities are breaking down. In an increasingly mobile world, the Trumps and Le Pens, bemoan a world where Dublin has more in common with Copenhagen than Castleblaney. They rail against difference, against otherness, and cloak themselves in a flag believing that only people who do likewise can be right.

Third, identities should be more than labels. I am more than one thing. If we are to have pride in our own identity then how can we believe it is right to stereotype, to denigrate, to discriminate based on one aspect of someone’s identity? Death and untold unhappiness have been the result of arbitrary lines on a map or the symbols hung in a building. The issue is not confined to national or religious identities. All group identities are ultimately about them and us.

So, identity should come from within. It should be what we choose in life. Everyone should have the right to freely express their identity. But, imagine a world where that wasn’t constrained by labels or by lines on a map.

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Values and destiny: why Scotland should say no to independence

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Two years ago, when the campaigns for Scotland’s independence referendum began, conventional wisdom held that support for independence would plateau at 40%. Someone miscalculated. Over the past ten days, polls have consistently shown that the end of the United Kingdom is now within the realms of the possible, not just the imagination. By Friday morning, Scotland might just have voted to become an independent country.

Three issues have converged to get us to this place. First, the Better Together campaign has failed to articulate a positive vision of the UK or of Scotland’s place in it. ‘No’ is an intrinsically negative position, but the Better Together campaign has taken that to an extreme. Surely no country decides its future based on what currency it will use. And yet, the No campaign has been obsessed with currency arrangements in an independent Scotland. Technicalities are important but vision beats detail.

Second, Alex Salmond and the Yes campaign have been disingenuous. They ignore reality. They seem confused about what independence really is. They promise a rosy future of a wealthy, confident, just, and fair Scotland. Oil money will keep the country afloat. Scottish culture will make the country punch above its weight. And Scottish society will be based on social justice once those nasty Tories and/or English are out of the equation. But the Nationalists’ economics are “flawed”: oil will run out, the banks will clear out, and demographics are not in favour of long-term social spending such as that promised by the SNP.

Never mind that the process of separating over 300 years of Union will be messy and complicated. Much of the Nationalist campaign’s predictions of a glossy future are premised on having the wind behind their backs in negotiations for a post-referendum settlement. Yet, as Martin Wolf writes, “A Yes vote will launch Scotland…into years of uncertainty.” The longed for Nordic-like future is undoubtedly possible for an independent Scotland, but it is folly to suggest that independence is a panacea.

Third, but most critically, few people see Scottish nationalism as a negative. But nationalism is inherently divisive. It is about separating people, about erecting borders, about saying that people would rather look inwards than be part of a cosmopolitan, open, and multi-national society. It matters not how innocuous and fluffy Scottish nationalism might appear: the argument of Scottish nationalists is that Scotland is only for the Scottish.

Nationalism says that organising and governing a particular area is best done by people who share a similar ethnicity, similar attitudes and a similar culture. Nativism and otherness are essential. Nationalism in Scotland is just as ugly as nationalism in the Balkans. Mark Blyth writes that “Nationalism, like most forms of identity politics, thrives only in the face of a foreign other.” Yes campaigners have used the politics of identity to blame the Tories, Westminster, and the English in general for what ails Scotland. It is ugly and narrow-minded.

The most successful societies and states in history have been those that champion cosmopolitanism and openness. Scotland is on the verge of saying that insularity, smallness, and national identity is of more importance in a globalised world than being part of a multinational society. Yet, as Philip Stephens’ writes, “prosperity and security in an age of great power competition belongs to those comfortable with multiple identities – the ones who bind themselves together in shared endeavour.”

Cultural confidence is to be celebrated. That Scots have a distinct identity from other parts of the United Kingdom is a good and positive thing. Where it becomes a negative is when that cultural and national identity becomes the definition of statehood. Common identities transcend borders; an accident of birth should be less important than the identity that we choose and build for ourselves.

Alex Salmond is a bully, but he has won the emotional argument regarding Scottish independence by building a vision of a hopeful and different future. Yes, an independent Scotland could undoubtedly be successful in the long-term. It would, provided the right decisions were taken, be able to build an economy, provide for its citizens, educate its young people, and care for its sick. But it is deluded to think that this can be done better in a state defined by its Scottishness.

The world is not binary. Why seek to divide yet further? A vote for Scottish independence merely solidifies the desire of some to divide based on culture and identity. It is saddening to think that, after the horrors that nationalism has wrought, people can still build a positive vision for the future around so insular an idea. Scots face a decision on what kind of values and principles they place more faith in: those of openness and diversity or those of narrow cultural identity.

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Free speech should never be an option

Dissidents in the Soviet bloc fought for many freedoms between 1945 and the end of the 1980s. None was more important than the freedom to say or write what they wanted. They understood that free speech is the conduit to other freedoms. Without it oppression becomes the norm, and fear takes hold. Dissent, criticism and open debate are necessary in strong and mature societies. Yet, it appears as though people are increasingly unwilling to engage in debate. Instead, the default option is to shut down dissenting or contrary voices.

The conflict in Gaza elicits strong passions. These passions are shaped by whether Israel or Hamas is viewed as the aggressor. There will likely never be agreement on the roots of the conflict or the ‘truth’ of particular actions. But there is a difference between debating the roots of a conflict and the merits of policy. The former is for historians whilst the latter can be deadly.

Israelis are overwhelmingly in favour of government policy: nine in ten support the strategy and tactics of the Israeli Defence Forces. But there are critics. People such as Gideon Levy, and the organisation B’tselem. Many have been vilified and attacked for questioning the war in Gaza. Peace rallies have been openly attacked and abused for undermining national unity. Outside Israel, those critical of how it has waged war on Hamas are often accused of anti-Semitism. There has been a deplorable and unforgivable rise in attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions, especially in Europe. Anti-Semitism, however, should not be conflated with criticism of Israeli policy; to do so risks shutting down debate.

Some voices are particularly ugly. George Galloway, an MP, is one such ugly voice. He recently declared his Bradford constituency “an Israel-free zone.” With opinions on most topics, and a knack for stoking controversy, Galloway is much in demand as a pundit and speaker. He is due to speak soon in Belfast. A city councillor from the Democratic Unionist Party tried to prevent Galloway from speaking in Council owned property. He failed. The publicity around the incident has ensured a sold-out ‘show’.

That competing voices are undervalued, whether in Israel, Northern Ireland, Egypt or the US, is dangerous. Three reasons are feeding this danger.

First, the public is less engaged in the big issues of the world. An obsession with the banal crowds out the meaningful. Policy debates, such as they are, are not about substance but about process. And even when a celebrity’s latest irrelevancy is not the main headline, any engagement is myopic: people listen to, watch, or read media that express a view of the world with which they already agree. Those who express a different viewpoint are dismissed.

Second, it is a cliché to say that social media is to blame, but it undoubtedly feeds the symptoms by being reductive. 140 characters does not allow for a nuanced discussion. Its reactive nature feeds emotions.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, emotion trumps logic. Public debate and discussion regularly degenerate into who is right and wrong rather than an objective working out of solutions.

Fundamentally, the vilification of critics of Israel’s policy or the DUP’s stance in calling for George Galloway to be prevented from speaking demonstrates a lack of confidence. Rather than challenging the content there is a desire to shut down the voices.

But free speech is of absolute importance. Rather than seeking to shut down or intimidate dissent, a mature and confident society should encourage it. That includes voices we think are vile and abhorrent, like Galloway, or those we think are questioning national unity. There are those who will say that it is not possible to have a mature debate with Galloway. That may be so. His views are repugnant and verge on being racist. He is a demagogue, unwilling to engage in reasonable debate. But it is still incumbent on society to let him have his say. Otherwise, one day, someone might tell you or me what we can or cannot say.

Therein lies a dilemma. How do we challenge people who abuse the responsibilities that come with the right of free speech? The answer is not to silence voices. That is the tactic of dictators. Instead, those voices need challenged on the content and substance of what they say. To do so requires an engaged citizenry, sharp minds, and a confidence in one’s views that is rooted in logic, not tribalism or emotion. Rather than use emotion as an argument, it should be deployed as a tactic.

Above all, heed the advice of my A-level politics teacher to read things that you disagree with on a regular basis. It mitigates against lazy thinking. Critically, it highlights the most difficult issue for those who hold strong beliefs whilst illustrating the surest sign of a mature society: that values or principles do not have to change but differing opinions must be debated and discussed with openness and tolerance. 

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Bye-bye NI21: a party’s death might help to bring about real reform in Northern Ireland

When the world’s political scientists are casting about for a case study in the failure of a political party, they need look no further than Northern Ireland’s NI21. This case has it all: alleged sexual impropriety, high-level resignations, petty squabbles, and unprofessional behaviour. Few writers could dream up this tale.

The party was founded in June 2013 by two disgruntled former Ulster Unionists, Basil McCrea and John McCallister. NI21 appeared to capture the zeitgeist. It emerged amidst recognition that Northern Ireland’s political system is stagnant and unresponsive. It was launched amid a blaze of publicity, and it galvanised many in the middle-ground who felt that their voice was unheard. McCrea became leader, McCallister his deputy.

Whilst favouring the link with the United Kingdom, NI21 focuses on a common Northern Irish identity and on socially progressive issues. Its premise is ‘fresh politics’ rather than fixating on the constitutional question. This ensured broad support amongst a generation who see Northern Ireland’s conflict as history.

The details of the party’s implosion appear to centre on a battle of wills between McCrea and McCallister. McCrea is accused of sexually inappropriate behaviour towards a young female party worker (which he denies). But this only emerged after McCallister gave an explosive interview to a local newspaper. He called the party “crazy” and “dysfunctional.” All of this happened less than 48 hours before European and local elections. In the aftermath, the party’s European candidate has resigned as Party Chairman and announced her departure from politics.

NI21’s future is unclear. What is even more unclear is what now happens to the reform agenda in Northern Ireland. NI21’s membership and support base hails largely from previously apathetic centrists. Many had never previously been involved in politics of any sort. There is a real danger that many of these people will walk away from politics like the Party’s ex-Chairman. Disillusionment is already high in Northern Ireland.

The region’s civic sensibilities are not particularly mature. People are expectant and cynical. Tribal identity is codified in law; this was part of the reason for the implosion of NI21 after it decided to ‘redesignate’ as Other instead of Unionist in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Three issues need addressed to ensure that a reform agenda is delivered. First, the political impetus needs to be truly ‘fresh’. McCrea repeatedly referred to NI21 as a “movement.” In this he was wrong. NI21 was not a citizens’ revolt but an opportunistic hijacking of an embryonic mood by two unhappy party hacks. Rather than leading change, people abdicated their responsibilities. They put their faith in what was little more than a vehicle for McCrea’s ego. For a movement to effect lasting change in Northern Ireland it will require a bottom-up approach, led by people who currently have little or nothing to do with politics. All the better if they have had nothing to do with party politics.

Secondly, reformers need to focus on policy. From the outset NI21 felt to be more style than substance: the glitzy launch, the lack of policies, the vacuous talk of a ‘movement’. The opportunism was ignored by many of the party’s supporters as their hunger for something new outweighed any critical evaluation of party policies. And yet, Northern Ireland is in dire need of a shake-up. Growth in 2014 is expected to be 1.1%, compared with 1.8% across the UK. The public sector makes up 65% of the economy. Politically, the four largest parties, which took over ¾ of the vote in Thursday’s local elections, are divided on religious and tribal differences rather than on meaningful policy differences. All four, along with the cross-community Alliance Party, form a compulsory coalition. Between them they control 103 of the 108 seats in the NI Assembly.

Third, reformers need to be ambitious. Development proposals in Belfast regularly become the subject of political horse-trading between the tribal blocs. This is particularly the case in deprived areas where identity politics is strongest. The Alliance Party’s current raison d’être is a ‘shared future’ for all. This is meaningless against a sputtering economy in which 27% of working age adults are economically inactive. Quite what it means besides providing shared spaces for Catholics and Protestants to come together is unknown. It is certainly not a rallying call for people who believe that the region’s past should not define its future.

The election of Johnny McCarthy as NI21’s sole representative, despite the events of the past few days, suggests that there is an appetite for change. The behaviour of the party’s leaders means that the true scale of the appetite remains unknown. Worse, the momentum for reform may have slowed. But if those who want to see change can rally together, the likely disappearance of McCrea, McCallister and NI21 might actually provide a more promising time ahead.

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