NI21’s chair Tina McKenzie on why she got involved, party labels and Alliance

Tina McKenzie NI21 croppedNew to politics but not a newcomer to recruitment or change management, Tina McKenzie chairs the newly launched NI21.

She was interviewed by Kerri Dunn for yesterday’s On the Record politics show on Lisburn’s 98FM.

Over the twenty minute interview she answered questions about why she joined the party, her thoughts about standing as a candidate, perceptions of the party, and her attitude towards Alliance.

On party supporters and the female-heavy launch:

There were a lot of women (at the launch) but probably in terms of population it was probably 50/50 and what’s interesting is most people think they come into a room like that they expect to see a lot of men so in terms of the absolute demographics of Northern Ireland it was probably representative.

Asked whether the party was trying to get women involved in politics:

That is not a specific goal. I think the party itself in terms of what we are aiming for will naturally appeal to women because we are an inclusive party, we are not a party about the past, we are a party looking towards the future … we have a lot of modern views in there and because we are so inclusive it will appeal to a lot of women.

On Basil and John, and people’s passion for politics:

The two guys have been very brave, they have broken away from the Ulster Unionist Party because they don’t believe in segregated politics, they have stood up for what they believe in, and I thought with their view on Northern Ireland, it was amazing that they were similar views I have of Northern Ireland and how we should take the country forward and how we should build a future that isn’t looking to the past and no other politician that I’ve heard speaking, from any party, has spoken that way before.

The first day I went to meet Basil properly, I went up to Stormont, and here I am a 40 year old in Northern Ireland and I’ve never driven up the drive of Stormont before. I’m hugely passionate about Northern Ireland, hugely passionate about politics, but there wasn’t one party or one party leader that inspired me enough to get involved.

I think in Northern Ireland generally there are a lot of people who are absolutely passionate about politics not our politicians

Talking about the fact she hasn’t voted since the Belfast Agreement:

I think if you look at the voting statistics, I think something like over 75% of people in Northern Ireland voted for the Belfast Agreement and since then I think we are down to averages of 52% of people coming out to vote, because people are just disengaged with our politicians and disengaged with that whole argument of just all about green and orange and identity politics all the time

I think a lot of people don’t realise yet, that these guys (Basil and John) are about way more – in terms of NI21 – it’s way more than what the old Ulster Unionist Party were about. This is about building a brand new future for Northern Ireland and I think anyone that knows me will have the opportunity to understand what the party is about, would be in favour of it.

On the need for the media to neatly label the new party:

After the launch, there was great excitement, there was great applause, people are excited about it, people want to join, but already we see that some of the media are trying to squeeze us into that box, because this is new … I think, right now, they (the media) are trying to squeeze us into that, this is what you are in terms of identity, you are a unionist party, first and foremost, and then you are these things. They cant understand that you can have a party that actually is pro being part of the United Kingdom but we don’t need to be labelled in terms of unionist/nationalist whatever, because that is unhealthy.

When asked if she describes herself as pro-Union:

I’m pro for staying part of the United Kingdom, absolutely. Now my reasons for doing that are mostly economical. I don’t think that in saying that you are happy to stay within a United Kingdom that that makes you less Irish by the way, or less Northern Irish, depending on how you describe yourself.

I think economically, if we look at the things we take for granted, for example the block grant, if we look at the sterling, from a business perspective we are much better off right now within the United Kingdom.

When asked why she didn’t feel comfortable joining or voting Alliance:

I’m really disappointed in Alliance, if I’m honest. They came out in 1973, the year I was born was when I think Alliance was born and in 40 years I think I have done more than they have. I would have initially thought Alliance was going to do a lot more, but unfortunately, they are in a situation they are between the DUP and Sinn Fein, a bit like the SDLP and UUP, I believe anyway, they are stuck in the middle there between a game of ping-pong and they don’t seem to be having the impact that one might assume they would’ve had.

Sure-footed right up to the point Tina suggested that in 40 years she had done more than Alliance – which will wind up the party that NI21 needs to work closely with while maintaining a healthy public distance.

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  • @Morpheus

    “NI21 does seem to be targeting Alliance more than the UUP. I find that genuinely strange too – Alliance is on an upward trajectory and is not, at least so far as I can tell, full of disenchanted people and voters. The UUP would be the more obvious target at almost every level; yet even it now seems marginally more coherent than it did.”

    The election is still several years away and you are making this judgement based solely on one press conference. But it seems to me that from Ms. McKenzie’s remarks about Alliance that NI21 is actually going for UUP voters. You wouldn’t make insulting remarks about a party if you were attempting to attract its voters, because this would insult their intelligence for having voted for the party in the past. But with the whole flegs issue, many “liberal” unionists are upset with Alliance and welcome to a message that insults the party. NI21 has to differentiate itself from both Alliance and the UUP. It can differentiate itself from the former by having designated as unionist, and from the latter by not having unionist in its name and staying away from DUP policies that the UUP seems to be embracing.

  • ..many “liberal” unionists are upset with Alliance ..

    Do you have anything, such as a poll, to substantiate that bald assertion?

  • Morpheus

    @tmitch57

    I don’t think you meant me – that isn’t me you are quoting.

    But in terms of NI21 polices then I can’t see them being a million miles away from the UUP because both Basil and John signed up the UUP manifesto and have been peddling it for years so they can’t have too many problems with it. I would say they will have a modern and progressive take on enough issues to differentiate them from the UUP and Basil will take the party to where Mike should have taken the UUP, the middle ground where most of the people are.

    Mister_Joe, I can’t see too many ‘liberals’ being too upset with Alliance, in fact I would go one further and say that their strong, principled stance in Belfast C.C. will have gained them a few votes among moderates on both sides. They made the right decision for the right reasons and followed it through despite disgusting tactics by the DUP/UUP, the death threats, the firebombs and the mobs on the streets.

  • Morpheus,

    That’s what I think too. We’ll see eventually.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I think liberal unionists are okay with Alliance actually.

    The party got a lot of calls in East Belfast to complain about the illegal UVF flags being erected in places where they were not wanted. Quite apart from everything else, the cold reality is that flags (like painted kerbstones) are bad for property prices and the only party taking a line against it in public was Alliance.

  • @mister joe,

    I put the word liberals in quotes for a reason. I’m not referring to those who would normally vote for Alliance, but those within the UUP who consider themselves liberal by comparison with the DUP.

  • Comrade Stalin

    tmitch,

    Mike Nesbitt is hanging around at loyalist flag/commemoration parades and wrapping himself in the union flag. In my book it looks rather like he’s doing his darndest to scare liberal UUP voters off.

  • Red Lion

    Mike Nesbitt is taking the ‘scattergun’ approach. He has no long term vision and is just blundering away at things his predecessors and political unionists generally get up to.

  • mjh

    On the contrary, Red Lion

    After a very shaky start, which was certainly scattergun, Mike Nesbitt has followed a very consistent and calculated course since last summer.

    Main Objectives: Ensure long-term survival of UUP (and Mike Nesbitt as leader) by avoiding loss of Euro seat and stopping flow of voters from UUP to DUP.
    Secondary Objective: Create the conditions for regaining some previous UUP voters from DUP , and the possibility of taking back 1 or more Westminster seats.

    Tactics:
    Promote agreement with DUP on candidate agreements, limiting DUP to 1 in Euros, sharing out Westminster seats between DUP and UUP with an agreed candidate in each, and agreeing candidate numbers for Assembly and Council seats with jointly run preference transfer campaigns.

    Keep so close to DUP on all issues of loyalist importance that Peter and the DUP have no room to wield the knife they have used so effectively on previous UUP leaders.

    No matter what you think of his policies, do not underestimate him. The polling evidence suggests that his tactics are working while the Mid Ulster agreed candidate result was a good political win for him.

  • Red Lion

    That’s me told!

    To be fair I had considered that he had made the decision to just appeal to the tribal core, and abandon any slim notion he might have had of trying to widen UUP or unionism’s appeal. I felt he was moving toward a unionist unity.

    Although he may be following a more consistent path (of appealing to the tribal core), in my book this is unionism strategically blundering about as usual and not being able to see beyond the end of their noses.

  • mjh

    There, Red Lion, we are in complete agreement. Nesbitt’s is a strategy driven by the need for survival. It has no room for long term considerations.

    That is where NI21 might find space for itself, offering a long term future for a Unionism shorn of its loyalist trappings. It would be a hard road, with small prospects of significant electoral success. But the prospects might just be better than chasing the elusive non-voters, which appears to be its current core strategy.

    By following that path, even if it failed electorally, NI21 could have an impact on politics far greater than its numbers and even beyond its own lifetime – much like the SDP arguably did in UK politics.

  • DC

    @Submariner

    I’ve finally found a bit of time to come back and nail this ‘parity of esteem’ thing via constitutional law.

    Parity of esteem:

    http://www.austenmorgan.com/Assets/PDFs/Belfast_Agreement.pdf

    And parity of esteem between the two main communities is a recent addition to Northern Ireland’s language of equality. It originated in a proposal from ‘a prominent Catholic
    nationalist lawyer’ to the informal Opsahl commission of 1992–93. This was that there should be ‘recognition of the nationalist community in a legal sense’.

    Presumably, the proposal relates to domestic law. The nationalist minority was, after all, recognized in the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. The commission recommended that ‘“parity of esteem” between the two communities … ought to be given legal approval, promoted and protected, in various ways … We recommend that the government moves to examine the feasibility of drafting … legislation explicitly to recognize Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland in relevant ways.’

    But it also went on to refer to international law. Query whether legal recognition of Irish nationalism requires a similar response to Ulster unionism?

    There is no reference to parity of esteem in part VII of the NIA 1998, where equality of opportunity is addressed. It also occurs within the Human Rights part of the Rights,
    Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity section. The Human Rights Commission is required to consider including parity of esteem in a possible future bill of rights for Northern Ireland….[parity of esteem didn’t make it into equality law and the Bill of Rights has completely tanked.]

    21.46 In an interview with Frank Millar in the Irish Times the day after publication of the report, the chairman said: ‘It seems to me what was settled in theagreement was that the constitutional position should be determined democratically. But in return for making that manifest, I’d understood nationalists and republicans were offered two things. First, parity of esteem and recognition that there are two traditions in Northern Ireland, and that one shouldn’t be seen (whether it is a justified observation or not) to be lording it over the other. And secondly, specific institutions of government were created to reflect that, while
    nationalists and republicans under the agreement are obliged to demonstrate their commitment to the democratic process, they’re not obliged to owe their primary loyalty to the institutions of the State. I don’t understand what the agreement is about if it isn’t about that.’

    21.47

    The following comments may be made.

    One, the first sentence is correct.

    But Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom (unproblematically in United Kingdom, international and Irish law). Democracy relates to – a possible future – unity by consent.

    Two, parity of esteem appears only in article 1 of the BIA (plus the first paragraph 4 of the Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity section). It has no legal constitutional significance in domestic law.

    Three, the same comment applies to the two traditions (from paragraph 5 of the Declaration of Support). This in fact stems from the preamble to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.

    Four, the question of the perception of lording it over the other, relates to ideology and not to law. Five, nationalists and unionists are required equally to demonstrate their commitment to the democratic process.’

    *Parity of esteem –
    based on a proposal for ‘recognition of the nationalist community in a legal sense [in domestic law?]’ – is the principal legacy of the informal Opsahl commission of 1992–93.3

    So – the hole in the heart of parity of esteem is that it has no legislative grounding or basis – it is this congenital defect which has pretty much caused its death.

    This is to Sinn Fein what the union flag coming down is to the DUP, except thankfully no one within nationalism has the balls to point this out because it kind of saves face for all concerned and indeed any embarrassment from having been found out.

    Basically put – you were bullshited to.

  • DC

    And as things stand the councils that do not fly any union flag in the face of the constitutional reality are justifying this in the mistaken belief that there is some sort of legal obligation to fly both flags whenever the facts are none actually exists.

    Therefore two flags or lack of should not be used to eliminate the legal one – the constitutional flag, the union flag.

  • Red Lion

    mjh ‘beyond their own lifetime’…NI21 are here to stay 🙂

  • Comrade Stalin

    Keep flogging that dead horse DC. It’s going nowhere.

  • oddridge