Northern Ireland got a new political party on June 6th. NI21 was born. It comes amid fevered discussion on social media of the prospects for a new style of politics in the region. A hashtag – #freshpolitics – sums up the hopes and aspirations of many.
I was underwhelmed, not at the idea of fresh politics. But because the name, NI21, is absent any vision or ambition. My first reaction on hearing it was not positive. It has the feel of something that middle-aged men, hoping to tap into the youth vote, might think is hip or modern. Instead, it seems stuck in 1997. Others have compared it to a strain of bird flu.
Names, one Twitter user pointed out, do not define everything. Those critical of the name were told to cast off the old politics. Wait for the policies, was the call.
The new party’s policies (of which there are none yet announced) will be more important than the name. But it does not inspire confidence. It smacks of a three second strategy session where, having announced that they needed something that said Northern Ireland in the 21st Century, they ended the discussion there.
Some 45% of Northern Ireland’s residents describe themselves as neither Unionist nor Nationalist, according to the latest NI Life and Times Survey. Fresh politics supporters point to the possibilities for change if these people can be engaged.
The tiny region’s politics are deplorable. A mandatory coalition holds power, the result of an agreement to settle nearly 30 years of violence. Of 108 members of the local assembly, 103 represent parties in government. Clientelism, parochialism, and tribalism are rife. Assembly members must declare a tribal allegiance upon election. Without opposition, the DUP and Sinn Fein, the two largest parties, increasingly concentrate power in their own hands.
Entire communities feel disenfranchised. Last December, Belfast City Council reduced the number of days on which the Union Flag will fly at City Hall. Working-class Protestant communities held a series of protests. Many were peaceful, but some were violent. Political parties struggled to connect with the protestors, who simply ignored the political process. They blame it for giving too much to Nationalists.
Young people feel especially alienated. The Troubles are history to them. Opportunities are lacking. A stagnant economy, dependent on the public sector, does not help. Belfast’s economy, once based on big industry, now seems based on call-centres. The answer for many is simply to leave.
NI21’s founders, Basil McCrea and John McCallister, are vocal and moderate. They tapped a reservoir of public apathy when they resigned from the Ulster Unionist Party in February. Fearing centrist voices were being undermined within the UUP their resignations came when it and the bigger, more strident Democratic Unionist Party fielded a joint Unionist candidate in a bye-election.
NI21’s roots are in seeking to challenge an unresponsive political system, not in Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. In his first speech as the new party’s leader, McCrea said, “[the current system] denies you that most fundamental of rights in any democracy: choice.” McCallister sought to lead his old party on a platform of taking it into opposition. Many had thought that they might join the centrist Alliance Party. But Alliance, the tiny opposition force in earlier Assemblies, entered government in 2010. It also undermines its liberal values through a lack of party discipline.
Supporters of fresh politics want to see a political system that is accountable, that delivers a competitive and prosperous Northern Ireland, and that treats Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as a peripheral concern. Those hoping for fresh politics may have to wait a while longer. It is intriguing that the new party’s leaders sought to define it using old politics. McCrea and McCallister have been clear that NI21 will be pro-Union in outlook.
And therein lies the difficulty for two such established politicians seeking to be changemakers. New faces were much in evidence at the launch, but the men at the top are well-known entities in Northern Ireland. A vigorous challenge to the status-quo will require more than establishing a liberal alternative and hoping and aspiring. It will require a societal demand for change, led by people who have no political baggage.
The liberal values espoused by NI21 – reformist, socially progressive and economically liberal – are much in need in Northern Ireland. An opposition force is also sorely needed. Achieving them will require intellectual rigour and political discipline.
Choosing NI21 as a name and the insipid “Aspire to Better” as a tag-line is not an inspiring start. Policies will be more critical to its success than a poor choice of name, but the lack of any policies, after four months of development, is inexplicable.
And those who support fresh politics should not confuse criticism of a lacklustre name with criticism of goals. They should realise, more simply, that messaging is king.