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.