Basil McCrea: we are increasingly looking at a policing response that does more than just contain the situation

Lagan Valley MLA Basil McCrea was interviewed on his local community radio station Lisburn’s 98FM today. Presenters of the weekly On The Record politics show – David McCann and Kerri Dunn – quizzed the whip-less politician about his previous statements on flag, the state of his party and his political future.

Lisburn's 98 Community Radio StationYou can listen to the entire 23 minute interview – with permission from the station.

[David] One of the things that has come out of the flags dispute is the unionist forum. There seems to be this drive between Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt to get a coherent unionist response to the flags situation. Do you think that the unionist forum is part of that process of sleep walking into unionist unity?

[Basil] I think it just sends out difficult and perhaps contradictory messages. What is the forum going to do that working on the ground wouldn’t have done. These problems that have arisen have not arisen over the last six to eight weeks. They’ve been happening over many years of disengagement.

I don’t think any form of short term fix is going to solve the problems. I’m not against engaging with people from all walks of life to find out how you might deal with their concerns. But grandstanding in a big forum – I’m not sure that that will produce any results. Now I’m prepared to give it a bit of time to see maybe it will come up with something. But in the past these things have been more of a figleaf than actually a solution.

[Kerri] So what is your solution? What would you suggest?

[Basil] There’s an old adage that “I wouldn’t have started from here in the first place”. The damage is now very, very considerable. The impact on our businesses, the impact on tourism, the impact on confidence, the impact on community relations – all extremely negative.

So you turn round and say how are you going to resolve the matter. You first of all have to get people off the streets. And then you have to go through a long process of telling people the truth. You do have to explain to people that compromise is necessary. It is not a dirty word. It is the way you go forward in any democracy, trying to work out what is the best for the most people. And we have to be honest with the people and say that sometimes this involves making decisions that not everybody agrees with.

If you wanted to go back and ask me, ok your premise was how do you get people off the streets? I do have to say that we’re getting to the stage now that a significant number of the population are getting fed up – absolutely fed up with not being able to go through on their way to work, or pick up children form childcare. I do think we are increasingly looking at a policing response that does more than just contain the situation but that actually resolves the situation.

[Kerri] You think that the police should do something more now? They should be moving the people off the streets?

[Basil] I think there is an issue where the right to peaceful protest does not extent to intimidation. Certainly doesn’t allow you to stand outside individual people’s homes or offices for long periods of time [Ed – unless you’re in Parliament Square in from of the Houses of Parliament, home to the Commons Speaker and his family!] I think it’s important that the roads are kept open. I’m prepared to take guidance from the police commanders and I have spoken to them about look we need a bit more time, we’re working on these issues, I understand the sensitivities. But I also have to say to the police that the vast majority of people are saying enough is enough, we need to keep our roads open, we have rights as well, that there must be a way of encouraging peaceful protest that does not drag our country through the gutter.

Earlier in the interview he avoided criticising his party leader but did explain why he supported John McCallister’s critique of “sleepwalking into unionist unity”.

[David] Do you think that under the leadership of Mike Nesbitt, do you think that the party in the way its going at the moment will ever find its way again?

[Basil] Well that’s actually a question that you have to put to Mike Nesbitt rather than to me!

[David] You are an MLA. You are a senior member of the party. From the sense that you have?

[Basil] Well I’m not overly happy with the direction that the party is going in. I support my colleague John McCallister when he says that they’re sleepwalking into unionist unity. I do think that there’s not sufficiently blue water between ourselves and our other electoral opponents. And if there’s no clear blue water then it’s very hard to go out and say to the public what you stand for. Leadership is all about saying this is what we stand for; this is why you should vote for me; this is why you should follow me. And I do think that task remains to be done. It is not being done adequately at the moment and if we do not deal with it then we’ll suffer more losses at the elections.

The rounds of joint statements, joint meetings, joint photocalls – people are quite right to ask what is the difference between yourselves [UUP] and the DUP. There is an old adage if you’ll forgive me: “if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”. That’s where we’re heading. It is not good for unionism. It is not good for Northern Ireland, and I personally if I had wanted to join the DUP would have joined the DUP.

It was a cautious interview in which the Lagan Valley MLA avoided declaring any longing to leave the party which he joined at the time of the Good Friday Agreement. More generally he pointed to a need for political realignment.

[Basil] I do sense that there is some pressure for realignment coming up. That clearly many people feel – whatever the intentions of the current political parties or politicians – they are not adequately representing their views or in the appropriate manner. There is definitely a tension out there to do that …

[Kerri] Are you talking about a realignment within unionism? Or a realignment of political parties in Northern Ireland?

[Basil] I think it might be wider than that. I think there is a very serious challenge to our community about where do you want to go? Do you want to build a future or do you feel more secure going over the same old battleground that you’ve done for the last 400 years? I say to people: I cannot change the past; the only thing I that can do is influence the future. I believe in providing people of the future [I] need to provide a vehicle, a communications channel, a way of doing that to put my view forward to the population, but ultimately the electorate and the electorate alone will decide what is the right way forward and who speaks for them.

[Kerri] So when you say another vehicle are you possibly thinking of a new party?

[Basil] I just think that no political party appears to be able to convince the electorate en mass that they have the way forward. All of the political parties I see seem to have people of every particular view in them. So within for example the DUP, you will have people that will considered to be moderate and more progressive, you will also have people who are more tradition, you’ll have people that will be on the right, people that will be on the left. All of this is really confusing for the electorate. The electorate does not know what they’re voting for. They think they are voting for something, and then something else comes up. And that is a form of disillusionment and that is what destroys confidence and trust in politics and I think that the political system needs to change to give people a clear understanding of what they’re voting for and why. And having done that the electorate rules, democracy rules.

Basil’s disciplinary hearing has been rescheduled for next Friday. In the interview he said that the best outcome would be “if people come forward and say that Basil McCrea has acted in the best interests of the party and within party policy”. Previously in the interview, Basil was upbeat – I might suggest, overly confident – about his support in the local party.

[Basil] … I’d say it was about 80 20 in favour of my position from the local UUP … there are obviously people that have been quite vocal and have gone into the papers saying they’re not happy. Those people are entitled to their opinion, but I think they are in the minority. Most of the people – whenever I explain the difficulties that are facing us – come back and say that is a sensible, reasonable and appropriate response.

Quizzed on whether he wants to remain in the UUP Basil answered that “as long as the party remains welded to the values of that are put forward of a shared future in the Belfast Agreement, then that’s where I will be”.

[Kerri] If the decision next week isn’t what you want and you’re no longer a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, will you go independent? Or will go to a different party?

[Basil] I’m not entertaining the issue that my view will not prevail, at this stage. But I did say to you that it is for the Ulster Unionist Party to make their decision and then I will make mine.