Tag Archives: John McCallister

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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Names, parties and hashtags: politics in Northern Ireland

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.

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