Basil McCrea and John McCallister were the invited guest speakers at a Friday lunchtime Politics and Change in Northern Ireland seminar run by the Institute for Research in Social Sciences at UUJ. The room was mostly full of academics and postgraduate researchers.
It was an opportunity to hear John and Basil deliver what might become their stump speech, laying out the vision and principles of their new “political vehicle”. Their fledgling two seater party has been sounding out support and prospective candidates, and apparently internally it now has a name, but won’t go public for a few more weeks.
In the meantime, the portmanteau “Team Jasil” is an apt way of branding the political double act, with a leading J for John who jumped out of the UUP first, yet increasingly it will be about Basil, the more impatient, more vocal and de facto leader of the pair.
Perhaps the most succinct pitch for what the party will stand for was made by Basil towards the end of the Q&A session.
[Basil] I can say categorically we are not just another unionist party. One of the reasons why we resigned … is because there is no such thing as unionist unity. The different between myself and my namesake Willie McCrea or David McNarry is a huge gulf. It is a fundamentally different approach to the way that you want to live life.
Our view about the United Kingdom – without making too big a song and dance about it – is that it is absolutely imperative from an economic point of view that we are a member of a bigger economic unit than the island of Ireland. There are stability issues at play. If you get yourself into Enda’s border polls you will not get anything that you can invest in, whether you like it or not it’s there and it’s the best you have got. There are long term developments where you can look after people’s cultural identity.
And if you want to know the fundamental difference, it is that we are a party – and we are quite careful and we will probably challenge on this point –we will not say that we are a pro-union party, we are a pro-United Kingdom party. That’s the difference. Because you get the name union or unionist and for certain sections of the community it becomes pejorative. What is a unionist? Is a unionist all the same? Not all unionists are the same.
We believe absolutely that in an open, tolerant, transparent, diverse democracy. We want to celebrate people’s cultural identity. [John] has spoken in Newry at a Sinn Fein conference. I’ve spoken in Derry at a Sinn Fein conference. I’ve spoken to an SDLP conference. I’ve actually given out medals to the GAA All Stars in Irish – not that I understood what I was saying but I gave out the medals!
But the issue is I am sufficiently confident in my identity that I do not need to put a Union Jack around my flag. I can say with confidence that my uncles fought in the war. My Uncle Bill is still alive after thirty missions flying over Germany. There’s nobody that has to come and sell me are you this, that and the other. My family came from Donegal. They didn’t have to sign up. We did because that’s what we believed in. So our view about being part of the United Kingdom is that there’s great benefits in terms of this plural , diverse, tolerant society.
I also have to say that if you ask me what is my identity, my identity is Northern Irish, I believe in Northern Ireland, I love Northern Ireland. I love the people of Northern Ireland. I know that maybe it’s a bit over the top when you’re in a political thing but actually I think they’re a laugh most of them. I don’t care what background they come from. You meet them. They’re fantastic. Character. Wit. Intelligence.
And yes we do need to find a way of getting on together. But that comes from mutual respect. That comes from the fact, as John was saying, about tolerance. And it works both ways. It is not enough to say the other side should be tolerant. Whenever I hear the word tolerance used it usually means the other side should let me do what I want to do. That’s not tolerance. The shared future we’re looking for should be a better future, a future where we all buy in together. We will take the argument and we will make this argument …
A lot of people from South Belfast would come up to us and say “Look, we don’t mind the United Kingdom but do you have to make a big song and dance about it? Could you not just be a bit Northern Irish and just go on and that?” No. Because ultimately – although we don’t want to do it, and we’re trying to get this out at the start and then say that’ll be the end of it – everything reduces from the media down into the identity question. Are you a unionist or are you a nationalist? Are you green or are you orange? Are you this, that, the other? You see that is a zero sum game that will take us no where.
We need to build a better identity. A Northern Irish identity where people’s backgrounds are respected. Where you can go to a GAA match if you want to. Where you can go to Irish dancing if you want to. Or where you can go on a parade on the Twelfth if you want to. This is about tolerance. This builds a future. And if you get that right, you build an economy where our young people don’t have to leave to get jobs, where we can bring investment in, where we can look after our old people, where we can have all of these positive things. Our challenge then whenever we go out – [picking up on a point from Deirdre Heenan in the audience] – is the challenge to the dual incomes, the people that have abandoned politics.
Don’t misunderstand what I’m going to say here. John and I both know the risks that we have taken. We know the chances of getting re-elected are modest. Maybe that’s overstating it? (audience laughs) But the reason why we’ve done it is because we’re going to put it up to you. We are going to put it up to those people that come up and touch us on the back and said we think you’re great guys and we’re pleased at what you’ve done and we wish you well. It’s not enough to say it’s great that you’re doing that but by the way I’m still voting for the other people. Get off your backsides and vote for people that are trying to make a difference. Get out. Get engaged. get your neighbours. Bring those people along.
Because you know what the flags thing did? It said to people, as John has said here, you cannot ignore politics. Ignore politics at your peril. The politics that we’ve got now will destroy our country, destroy our future, and destroy any opportunity any of us have a normal life.
So where are we? We’re at the situation where I will take it head on when someone like Alex [Kane] says to me: define yourself. I’ll take it on. I’m Northern Irish. I am Irish. I am British. I am myself. I want to build a democracy where people can vote without fear. I want people to vote for something and not against something. I want people to have hope, vision, belief in themselves and number one, I want to build a future for our children.
Interviewed after the seminar, John and Basil said that “reform and choice” would be at the heart of their new party which would be anchored in the future rather than the past. There would be a “clean slate of candidates except for South Down and Lagan Valley”. While forming the new party, they’ve talked to women, non-traditional unionist sources as well as traditional core voters. Once launched, Basil and John plan to tour Northern Ireland with a series of roadshows “to talk to people and see who’s interested”. While acknowledging the uncertainties in the their path to electoral success Basil said that they were “not volunteering for early retirement” but “hoping to make significant change” by “getting a sufficient political mandate to exert influence on [other parties]” in the Northern Ireland political landscape.
The seminar started by addressing the speculation around Basil and John’s “falling out with the UUP”:
[Basil] The decision in Mid-Ulster to run a joint candidate was something of a surprise to us. We only found out about it from the news when it happened. Given that we’d already made it absolutely clear to the party that we were not going to get into some form of unionist unity, if they’d wanted to manage the situation a bit better then perhaps they should have been talking to us …
I had certain difficulties with the stance the party took on the flags issue in Belfast City Council. There was – as you’re probably aware – some disciplinary issues that I had to go through. That was actually a bit of fun, though maybe only fun to people like us who like the nitty gritty of it.
My stance on it was this: I was a member of Lisburn City Council which was a predominantly unionist council. And we had taken the decision – whenever I was a council I’d voted for it – that we would only fly the flags on designated days. So we had been flying the flag for the whole year and we took it down. And we did so because of legal pressure. We’d had people saying this is a place of work, this is how you have to respond. But nevertheless we decided that we would do it. And what we did that was different to Belfast City Council was that we did it without much fuss. We took the decision, we took the flag down, we didn’t say anything, and you know what? Nobody noticed. Nobody even knew it was there.
The debate I had [on the Nolan Show] was making the point that we didn’t handle it correctly in Belfast City Council. No matter what it was that you were going to do, the idea about getting everybody terribly exercised about the matter was bound to lead to difficulties. But whenever I was asked “well what would you have done if you were at Belfast City Council?” I said I would have voted for flying the flag on designated days. I couldn’t do anything else because I voted for it in Lisburn City Council – designated days. And I was sitting up in Stormont – which is designated days. It would have been terribly inconsistent for me to have said anything else.
Basil went on to explain that designated days was party policy. To prevent the Executive collapsing with Sinn Fein ministers threatening to take down the flag from their ministries David Trimble helped organise an emergency order that went through the Commons and the Lords in a single day so that the union flag would fly on government buildings only on designated days, not including the Twelfth of July. Quite a few UUP members spoke about it, recorded in Hansard.
[Basil] I had great fun reading them back in my disciplinary committee.
Combined with the Mid-Ulster unity candidate …
[Basil] … it just said to us that Northern Ireland needs a different type of political dynamic. We appear to be going backwards, we appear to be retrenching. It doesn’t take Einstein to work out that if we carry on at this trajectory we’re going to end up back in the 1970s.
I don’t want to be alarmist but I will say it as I see it. The flags issue caused us huge damage from an economic point of view. I was talking to the Hotel Federation and they’re telling me their room numbers are down. I was speaking to a major airline that’s said they’ve taken airplanes off routes because we don’t need the passengers anymore. Our inward investment of tourism – everything is critically affected by people that have taken to the streets …
But perhaps more important than the economic issue is the shared future because we’ve gone back at least fifteen years. There is no shared future. This issue where we’ve heard the First and deputy First minister coming out with what can best be described as sticking plasters is just ridiculous. At the same time they’re bringing out these issues about the peace walls coming down, you’ve got Sammy Wilson saying I’m going to get some more flagpoles to put up more flags.
Government needs to act with some form of unity. The political message that John and I are going to try to advance is that unless you can get some form of unifying vision – whatever that is – we are going nowhere. A divided Executive, a divided country, simply will not prosper. And the most divisive thing we have coming at the moment is talk about a border poll. It just brings us back to orange and green, protestant and catholic. You cannot invest in a country, you cannot invest in people, you cannot invest in anything when you are not sure where you are going.
Our view about the type of politics we would like to offer is that we are quite clear that we believe that Northern Ireland’s best interest – the people of Northern Ireland as a whole – are best served within the United Kingdom as devolved administration.
We think a lot of people agree with that, whether they come from a unionist, a nationalist or neither background. People agree with that. They get the political reality … Whenever we walk down the street, we get a lot of people and the conversation goes just like this. They absolutely knock people out of the way, literally, to come up and shake your hand and say “thank you very much, I’m really pleased what you’ve done, really courageous” – which is never a word we like to hear – and that’s fine, we say thank you very much. But you know what the second line is, always? The second line is always now, “understand I’m actually a Catholic” or “I’m not for your side normally” …
Part of our challenge that we have to find is a way to nuance a message that goes out that reassures those people from a unionist, particularly a small ‘u’ unionist background – people that do not need to wave a flag or to drape it round them to express their identity. We want to keep those people on board. We want to give them a voice. We don’t think they have a voice because it’s gone to the extremes. But we’re also wondering is it possible for us to give some sort of voice to people though of Irish cultural basis or even Northern Irish cultural basis, can we give them a political vehicle they can come along and vote for as well. And the proof of the pudding will be if they do more than just slap us on the back and say “well done, very courageous” as to whether they’ll actually vote for us.
We’re looking at other people that may not be either unionists or nationalists. They just want simply good government, because frankly we do not have good government. We could give you a list of things we know about that things are going wrong. It’s so long you don’t have time to get the press release out until another one’s come along.
On opposition …
[Basil] How do you confront people without getting into the same tit for tat type of thing you saw last night on The View. There is a legitimate role for oversight, holding people to account, pointing out where things are going wrong – because things are going wrong, we are wasting a lot of money. But at the same time what we really want to get and what we would like to do with our political vehicle is to get some degree of positiveness back. Somebody who is going to go out and say “I believe in Northern Ireland”. What strikes me most is people from all backgrounds [when]we have visitors from across the water, we take them to the same place, we take them to the north coast, we take them to the Mournes, we take them to Fermanagh, and we’re all very proud of it. There’s something here on how we build on that.
I also have a belief that Northern Ireland does have an economic future, that we have an awful lot of good things going for us. Sometimes we talk ourselves down. We do have fantastic universities, Fantastic further education colleges, good infrastructure, relatively stable climate, proximity to big markets. There are all sorts of things that we can go along and do. But if we do not get the stability thing sorted out then people will leave in their droves because they’re having to look for jobs, and that’s a real disaster.
So our vision for Northern Ireland is one where we want to see some peace and stability, we’re not trying to shoehorn people into some kind of integrated education solution or tell people what you must do. What we feel is that people naturally if given a bit of time and space will start to mix, will start to say we don’t mind which house we’re living in, it’s not what area it’s in, we like the house we want to be there. This is the type of Northern Ireland I think we can all subscribe to. And our bottom line is that we think we should be aspiring to better.
Northern Ireland deserves better that what we’ve got. The political situation should be better. Our political leaders should be better. There’s no point us just sitting in our armchair saying this We’ve got to go out and do it. So we take a fairly pragmatic position on this. It’s a challenge. Some people say: “you don’t have a chance, it’s the same old same old”. We will be putting a challenge to the people of Northern Ireland. We will be saying: if you want the same old same old keep on voting for the same old same old. If you want something different, if you want something new, if you want something dynamic, if you want something better, then you’re going to have to vote for us.
John McCallister began by remarking about political leadership.
[John] You look at relationships … from last year’s parading season. The pressure put on the Parades Commission. And you look at people ratcheting up the tension. And these are people who haven’t quite realised “I’m the First Minister, I should be supporting the Parades Commission; I mightn’t like the Parades Commission, I might think it’s a crazy system, but I can’t think of a better way of doing it, or I can’t pass the legislation necessary” … You would not hear David Cameron or Enda Kenny talking about the rule of law in respect of UK and the Republic of Ireland in such a glib fashion.
While he was initially perturbed by Basil’s public statement in support of designated days, John went on to say:
[John] That’s what I want our new political party to do. At times we have to say things that maybe not everybody wants to hear. But you have to get that message out to people: this is wrong, this is the way we should be doing it. If the Parades Commission make a decision, I mightn’t like it but we have to respect it or else come up with a different body to do it.
John acknowledged it was quite a change from contesting the leadership to eleven months later being out of the UUP.
[John] Where did it all do wrong?! The advice I would give to anybody – and it applies to Basil – is never come second in a leadership election. Good advice to always remember that!
What happened? Basically Mike was leader of the Ulster Unionist Party with no clue as to what he wanted to do with it. That was the problem. The people I had helping me during the few weeks of the campaign for the party leadership, everyday waiting on Mike’s big announcement, the big idea. It hasn’t actually arrived yet and it’s thirteen and a half months on … It just kept going all through that year. When I was warning and warning the party internally and then externally as my well known Covenant speech – probably one of the most read speeches I’ve ever delivered that everybody went onto social media to find out what did John say so horrendous that he got fired as deputy leader. That started and we were into Covenant parading and all the tension on the Parades Commission. I just felt that Mike and the party were going in the wrong direction on this heading in the wrong way.
I remember doing a speech before Christmas that Mike wasn’t particularly happy with me doing. But I spoke then about we need to show a spirit of generosity. We’ve a divided society. We cannot reduce everything to these zero sum games. And then you get into the new year and all of this stuff about Mid Ulster. And the problem for me with Mid Ulster wasn’t the choice of candidate – I’ve no difficulty with Nigel Lutton personally … The message that it sends out is just a sectarian carve up. It’s not that we’re trying to reach to people, that we’re trying to move off identity issues and talk about the issues that affect us: youth unemployment, the economy, jobs, skills, schools, hospitals, all of that. We’re heading in completely the wrong direction. And I knew that if I let that go, I’d have been bought into it.
So I made one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make and resigned from the UUP. It so happened I was due on The View that night to speak about social care. But I made that decision simply because I did not want to be part of it. I know that I’m in one of the most difficult seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly to hold. But the challenge is – as Basil said – that I’ve got to go tell people in South Down and across Northern Ireland if that’s the sort of politics you want, you have the responsibility to come out and vote. Politics is just too important to be left to the politicians. Get out and vote and get engaged in what politics is about.
The primary thing I’ve always thought about changing right from I stood for party leader and probably even from when Basil stood for leadership of the UUP is about the idea around opposition. I’ve been in Stormont from March 2007. I’ve watched the system as it goes. I’ve been Michael McGimpsey’s man on the Health Committee. I’ve been against a minister from an opposing party. I’ve watched the system. I’ve watched the way the lead parties treat the smaller parties. Alex [Kane] had a tweet out yesterday: stop whinging or leave the Executive. That’s the bottom line. You need an opposition. Every system of government needs a challenge function, needs the checks and balances …
You look at the reasons I took the party out of the great shared future talks. It was because they weren’t listening to us. They were ignoring us. They put out a statement that July to just say we’re winding this up in September and we’re going to publish it. Is that anyway to treat people when the deal was nothing was agreed until everything was agreed, and what the group couldn’t agree would go to party leaders?
We’ve had this great new announcement. The most exciting thing in shared future in years. And it’s that we’re going to throw half a billion pounds and take ten thousand kids away somewhere. We’re not sure where they’re going, but we’re going to take them away. You’ve a few weeks to wait until the grand strategy is unveiled. Then … we’ll need to see is there an action plan to follow? Are government departments going to be challenged? You were watching The View last night. You’ve Danny Kennedy and David Ford who are Executive ministers who didn’t know about it. And presumably neither did Stephen Farry, another Executive minister. And O’Dowd’s answer was “So what?” The response from Danny and David is that we’re still going into the working group. It’s not “sod your working group if you’re going to treat us like that”.
Sinn Fein and the DUP. Credit to them, they’ve won the election. Let them get on and govern. But everyone else should be in opposition. I’m fully committed to power sharing. Absolutely no question on that … I’ve looked at this. I’ve looked at the legal advice on this. There is no reason the Northern Ireland Assembly cannot create a formal opposition. We can change the structures. We can evolve it through time. We could start off using d’Hondt. We could move away eventually from d’Hondt, from designations. I don’t like the designation system. I don’t like the fact that Alliance Party vote doesn’t count the same as mine. I don’t think that’s a fair system. So I would like to move away from a designation and from d’Hondt and move to a weighted majority vote. Do I think we can do that immediately? Probably not. But we can evolve the opposition and get that challenge function into our government that is so badly needed. You look at the litany of problems that we face as a society. There is no collective responsibility. There is no movement on education because we can’t agree it. Welfare reform – the bill keeps getting pulled because DUP and Sinn Fein can’t agree on it. The only thing we can get nearly everyone out to agree either for or against it is something like equal marriage.
Get the parties who lose the elections in opposition. Between Basil and I we’re happy to help lead them on that in a collective opposition. But that’s what you need to get and get challenge, get [committee] chairmanships predominantly coming from opposition parties and revolution how the Northern Ireland Assembly works. Start to move to issue-based politics rather than being knocked all the time off course by these identity issues and sort out the issues of dealing with the past, the flags and how we react to it.
The biggest failing I would see about Peter Robinson is that he was probably the most secure unionist leader – certainly in my lifetime, probably from Lord Brookeborough – and what has he done with it? Absolutely nothing. Unionism is now literally in meltdown. It’s fragmented. I think you’d a piece Alex: Northern Ireland’s place in the Union is safe, despite of Unionism, not because of it. That is so true. What we need to get back: the border is a settled issue, no one’s talking about it. But we turn every election into a border poll and that’s where we have to get away from.
[Basil] The absolute necessity for an opposition. It’s maybe an unfortunate term the word “opposition” as people think it’s negative. What we mean is a “democratic alternative” … Even if you never get in [to government], you still hold them to account, you’re still able to go and point out some of the ridiculous things people spend money on that they think we don’t know about.
The second thing we see ourselves as being different: we are unashamedly pro-United Kingdom. We are saying to people, as we see it hear and now, Northern Ireland’s future is best served within a devolved administration within the United Kingdom … There’s only one real strategic issue for Northern Ireland which is how you maintain stability. If we go back to the tribalism and the sectarian trench warfare, you destroy everything …
Part of our problem is that whenever we looked at the Alliance Party is that it’s been around for forty years. It has not managed to make the breakthrough and we believe the breakthrough is there to be made … We do not disagree with some of the policies that the Alliance Party have and we’ve been quite vocal coming out supporting them, but we don’t think it’s for the necessary dynamism to actually change Northern Ireland.
Answering a later question, Basil said:
[Basil] We think what the flags issue did was crystallise people’s thinking. Up until maybe a year ago, eighteen months ago, there was no opportunity for the sort of thing John and I were talking about … We’re now in a situation where people are going “do you know what, politics does matter to me, I can no longer afford to ignore it, I can no longer say it’s those eejits up on the hill”. Politics affects everybody. Frankly it’s not about candidates. It’s about the people. It’s about people of Northern Ireland going “are we going to slip inexorably back into the sectarian warfare that we had in the past, are we just going to sit here and let it happen?” …
John was quite direct when he talked about Peter Robinson. Our assessment is that Peter Robinson tried to bring his party onto the centre ground, He tried to reach out. He tried to make the speeches. He didn’t bring his party with him. You could see that when they did the cutaway [shots] that they weren’t clapping when he was doing the let’s try and do the reach out bit, they were only clapping when they were waving the flags. But he was strong enough at the time to bring it through. But he’s lost ground. The disaster for unionism under Peter Robinson’s leadership is that the flags process has destroyed any form of collective working together. When you have no confidence, when you have no hope, you go nowhere.
We think there is a constituency out there that are happy with the broad sense of Northern Ireland within a United Kingdom, They do not want to deal with sectarian politics. They want to move away from that and get issue-based good government. And the only way we’ll find out is by having an election. And that’s where we stand.
Another question asked whether the current STV constituency voting system would work against their new party.
It was obvious from some answers that while the new Team Jasil vehicle will value sharing and integration, it will be a lot less intentional than Alliance in building it into the heart of their policies. Take education:
[Basil] A fundamental tenet of what we think about the way forward [in education] is the rights of individuals. If you asked us were we for big government or small government? State intervention or relying upon the individual? We would be for smaller government, relying on the individual, devolving as much decision making as possible down to the citizen. We’d like it to be informed decision making. Once you’ve established that principle you come to things like who decides what school your child goes to? Is some sort of randomised factor? Is it you go to the closest school? Or do you say no, education is better if parents are really involved and we should support parents who are trying to get their children to the school that suits them …What you want to do is develop a diverse education system where you try and match as best as possible this is the type of education, this is the ethos you’re going to get across. We want more specialism, more diversity not less. We do not want one size fits all. We want a better system. And parents should be involved because you’re making decisions really early on.
I spoke two days ago to Ballymacash primary school P7s about their solar powered lights that they send off to Africa. it was an inspiration. These are the years of wonder. Ten to thirteen. That’s when people make up their mind whether they want to go down science to language or something else. We’ve got to enthuse them at that stage. That’s what we ought to be doing with our education system. Getting the right people to the right place.
So when you come back round to saying do I want to use it as a policy tool? Do I want to come along and say “you should go to that school because we’ve decided we want catholics and protestants living together”. That’s bussing. That doesn’t work. What I actually want to do is create an environment where the people in their own time and in their own way will start to integrate. They’ll start to live in mixed areas. They’ll start to say “you know what, we’ve a lot in common with each other”. And when it happens Northern Ireland will be a better place. But if you try and shoehorn anybody into anything, if you try to push them to do things, you get a kickback, you get a negative reaction. It doesn’t work in my opinion. We need to form a better way forward.
There are clearly some political differences between John and Basil. The double act interviews cannot continue much beyond the party launch. The banter between them will have to be replaced with one of them at a time speaking to policy areas and events in a trusting and disciplined manner.
They see success coming through engaging and enthusing non-voters and disillusioned voters. Yet those are incredibly hard to reach groups. And while Team Jasil certainly have a head start over many other small parties who have no elected representatives, money is scarce, staff are scarce, and profile will be difficult to build.
Jim Allister punches beyond his weight as he performs his weekly ritual of tabling questions to Executive ministers which have embarrassing answers. It’s a technique that others fail to reproduce.
Basil and John will need to make a lot of noise between not and the broadcast media closed season in the run up to the Euro election in June 2014 when they’ll find themselves frozen out of radio and TV coverage and relegated to columns in the newspaper and expensive posters on lampposts.
Basil and John’s long-term quest for an opposition requires the cooperation of the main parties – and given the recent liberal use of petitions of concern, it is unlikely that they will achieve consensus in the short to medium term … unless (as Alex Kane wondered) the DUP agree to treat Team Jasil as a harmless way of undermining the UUP.
Is it credible that a new party could quickly make an impact? The odds are stacked against them. Yet a couple of politicians with only an election standing between them and losing their income certainly have the motivation to go the extra mile to reach the (potential) electorate.
At times – particularly during the question and answer session – Basil was passionate and evangelical in his delivery. Yet educating voters about their vehicle’s nuanced approach to being pro-United Kingdom rather than pro-Union will be an uphill struggle. The pair will also need to be on guard against Basil’s tendency to be populist and to please people along with John’s propensity for flippancy that sometimes distracts from his thought out message.
Colour will need to be replaced with substance; promises replaced with actual measurable change; predictions of a gap in the electorate replaced with votes. And the nickname Team Jasil needs to be replaced with a name that has a little more gravitas and sounds less like some kind of intimate bejewelling. Northern Ireland politics isn’t ready for that!