NI21 inaugural conference launches some policies & starts the job of converting supporters to votes

On Saturday NI21 started their quest to turn supporters into advocates, to get members to realise that paying a tenner to join the party was only a fraction of the effort and sacrifice that will be required over the next couple of years. For supporters it was a chance to pick up their NI21 lapel badges, hear senior party members outline their vision, and meet other interested people living in their constituency.

ni21 setNI21’s core team should be very pleased with the party’s inaugural conference. The 280 chairs set out in the Europa Hotel’s Exhibition Hall were filled for much of the morning with members, lurkers, observers, exhibitors and press. That comfortably eclipses longer established parties like the Greens and TUV, and should sound alarm bells in Alliance and UUP that NI21 cannot be ignored.

Labels of religion, gender and disability were refreshingly absent.

“The Union” didn’t have to be referred to every ten minutes to ensure it stayed in place. Irish could be used without fear of sparking a “culture war”. While some regular party conference exhibitors were present, there were also new faces with the Institute of Physics in Ireland and Royal Society of Chemistry welcome scientific additions to the 27 stalls.

Before conference started, there was an eerie silence in the hall. Unlike most party conferences where meeting up socially is more important than the speeches and debates, on Saturday relatively few delegates knew each other at the start.

There was an intentional openness with party executive nominations and its mini-hustings being conducted in public – and streamed online – along with an advice session from ex-PUP deputy leader David Rose on how to form constituency associations.

Watch out for cake and politics coffee mornings being organised in a street near you. There was an emphasis on sustainability, growing local constituency organisations rather than organising everything from the centre. NI21 are getting to the stage where Basil and John can’t know everyone in the party.

While the age profile was definitely younger than other parties, by no means was there a complete absence of grey hair. There were familiar faces from the UUP, and one or two from the SDLP. A majority of members seemed to be at their first political party conference. Saturday’s conference attendees can’t yet be terribly ‘sticky’. Getting the newbies up the forming-storming-norming-performing ladder – as well as physically up ladders next Spring with posters, cable ties and grease – will be hard work.

Between Alliance, NI Conservatives and NI21 there is definitely room to reshape and redefine the centre ground in Northern Ireland politics. NI21 may not be the winning vehicle. But from today’s performance, they seem to be revved up and ready to try to shake up NI politics in the meantime.

Having reshaped his speech overnight, Basil McCrea still managed to veer away from his printed copy. While his ability to extemporise is at first folksy – and may have had a place to bond with the new and potential members – it undoubtedly makes him sound longwinded and can make him sound self-important. Fixing this needs to be near the top of party chair Tina’s list of things to sort. B for Basil, B for brevity.

John’s speech – bizarrely relegated to half four in the afternoon – was much shorter, stronger and snappier. In hindsight, the deputy leader should have been the warm up just before Basil’s address.

There was no public mention of Ni21’s European election candidate; in fact, private indications that their candidate wouldn’t be named until after Christmas. While the expectation is that posters of John McCallister’s face will appear on map posts in April and May, there may still be some internal party discussions to find an alternative figure that still portrays NI21’s image and values.

Worth noting that while the UUP came in for some general criticism, none of the NI21 speakers took the opportunity to directly criticise John and Basil’s former colleagues.

Between the launch of Team Jasil on 6 June and Saturday’s conference, I really expected more proposals targeting specific Executive policy weaknesses and translating NI21 principles into policies.

While some policy ideas were outlined at the NI21 conference, they were quite aspirational and potentially quite unachievable. Though in many ways the ideas were still more specific and memorable than anything Alasdair McDonnell proposed last weekend at the SDLP conference.

Tinkering with the “scaffolding” around OFMdFM, Opposition and the Speaker is symbolic and might rebalance Executive delivery. But it’s a bit pie in the sky until other parties (including DUP and Sinn Fein) decide to cooperate.

Devolving fiscal powers to Northern Ireland is both frightening and audacious. Given the Treasury’s reluctance to loosen the strings around Corporation Tax, how much more difficult would it be to convince them to hand over tax-varying powers to politicians who after two years still haven’t allocated any of the £80m in the Social Investment Fund.

The party’s proposals around using Westminster’s £20m of cash to fund a pupil premium for schools in socially disadvantaged areas rather than extending free school meals is tangible and may garner political and public support.

Between turning their supporters into vote-winning assets, building constituency associations, identifying and training candidates, and keeping an effective presence in the Assembly chamber and committees, NI21 will have their work cut out.

In years to come – assuming NI21 are still around – the party will face the challenge of deciding whether to run candidates in marginal Westminister seats or tight Assembly elections that would unseat other moderate candidates. (For example, whether to run against Naomi Long/Alliance in East Belfast.) Current thinking seems to favour standing candidates and avoiding making deals – explicit or implicit – with other parties.

In the meantime, alongside Courage, Conviction and Commitment, NI21 may want to add a fourth C, Cash! While some businesses are obviously helping out with goods or services ‘in kind’, mounting election campaigns in less than six months time will be an expensive test of NI21’s staying power.

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Alison Crawford addressing NI21 conference

Before the leader’s speech, two party members – Alison Crawford and Ben Acheson explained why they were involved in NI21.

You can watch or listen (in two parts) to Basil McCrea’s speech.

We are here today to talk about the future not the past. It’s not about the future, it’s about our future. And it’s not just our future, but it’s our children’s future, and their children’s future. And it’s a heavy responsibility.

In [this] speech I want to set out some basic tenets. I want to explain why Northern Ireland needs another political party, a new political party. I want to show why NI21 will be different. I want to set out what we hope to achieve and how we’ll go about it. And I want to finish by explaining why you are the most important person in this room.

Basil gave his analysis on the weakness of NI’s current political system:

There is clearly something fundamentally wrong with our political system. We have a situation where almost half of people in this country don’t vote … We also have flag protests that are allowed to bring our capital city to its knees. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of their concerns, what they do is counterproductive destructive and not good for anybody. And we also have the situation where we have to drag Richard Haass all the way across the Atlantic, to attempt to sort our problems that we really should have been sorting out ourselves around the Executive table,

It’s obvious to me that the tired old parties of the 20th century have failed to deliver on the promise of the Good Friday Agreement. They have squandered the opportunity, they have dashed the hopes of everybody who voted for the Agreement. One of the reasons why we need a new party, is that the old parties of the past are part of the problem and not part of the solution.

NI21 is a new party but what makes it different? The answer was written on the snazzy set behind Basil. Three Cs, written on the snazzy set behind Basil.

The Courage … to speak out when others will keep quite; the Conviction … to stand up for what you believe; and a Commitment … to change Northern Ireland for the better

But the most exciting thing about NI21 is the shear diversity of the people who support it. I am exhilarated, enthused and inspired by the people in this room. I have met many of you already [and] each and every one of you is different. Being different is what makes us special, being different is what makes us individuals, and being different is what makes change possible.

We in this room are united in seeking a common future but we are not the same, we are not clones. At the very core of our value system is a determination to fight for the rights of all the individuals in our country, whatever their cultural background, whatever their religious beliefs, whatever their sexual orientation, or their age, or their gender, or whatever differentiates them. We fight for the individuals of Northern Ireland.

… in modern relationships, in modern family life, attitudes are complex, personal and constantly evolving. So it is not for us to tell unmarried couples, or gay couples, or single mothers or kinship carers that their family unit, their lifestyle, their decisions are any less worthy than others.

We are not on a moral crusade. We just want to live in a society where everybody is treated with respect, everybody is treated with dignity, and everybody belongs to our community.

While normally avoiding labels, Basil McCrea said he was happy to be labelled as “Northern Irish”.

His message to Sinn Fein who “disagree with the very existence of Northern Ireland”:

… if you aspire to government in the South you must realise that the people of the south will judge you on how you do government in the North. And if you proclaim in the South that you are doing a great job in opposition, that you are holding the government to account, that you are a government in waiting, surely in terms of equality you will support similar structures in the North Ireland Assembly?

Basil McCrea reminded delegates of the three strands to NI21’s strategy:

We have to provide a viable alternative to the parties of the past for they are taking us nowhere … we need to create more jobs, a better living wage, and a better economy because it is hard to sell the benefits of the democratic process when people are suffering falling living standards … and finally we must make the Assembly more effective because we cannot make progress without better political leadership.

Basil McCrea gave examples of deteriorating economic indicators and concluded that “the economy is not working and the unrelenting positive spin by the government is actually counter productive”. Young people struggle to find jobs and many are forced to emigrate or take jobs that offer little reward for their educational achievements”. He added: “for those without skills or an education the situation is even bleaker”.

Our education system appears unable to adapt, our hospitals are under pressure and the prospect of welfare reform hangs over the most vulnerable in our society. Against this backdrop it is hardly surprising that there is a real mood and demand for change in the country. It is that demand that NI21 intends to satisfy.

NI21’s party leader remarked that a recent Belfast Telegraph/Lucid Talk poll had given the party “almost 5% of the vote” which was “almost the same as the TUV, UKIP and the Green Party put together and it is well within reach of the UUP and the Alliance Party, and we haven’t finished yet”.

Success is not John and I retaining our seats. Success is actually building a new Northern Ireland.

Back to the economy …

NI21 believes in a social market economy. This means we are pro-business, it means we believe the tax system should be used to help businesses flourish, but it also means that the role of the economy is to improve the lives of all individuals in society.

We have to build an economy which provides everybody with a living wage. You cannot convince the people that politics is a good thing if their living standards are falling. But let me make it quite clear – no one will be lifted out of poverty if we do not have a successful, profitable and highly competitive private sector. It is the private sector that creates jobs, it is the SMEs that are the backbone of our economy, it is our entrepreneurs who create wealth and opportunity …

Basil McCrea argued that to make a step change to an underperforming economy would require local access to the fiscal power in order to vary taxes and regulation.

The first thing is to recognise the obvious and accept that the economic and social problems facing Northern Ireland are not the same as those facing Scotland, Wales or the South of England. One size does not fit all, we need economic policies that are specifically designed for Northern Ireland … and we need the tools to implement these policies.

With the pressure on the block grant likely to grow it is imperative that we develop an effective economic strategy. The use of appropriate tax regimes are a government’s primary means of providing strategic direction. We desperately need access to those means.

So I pledge today that NI21 will pursue the devolution of more powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly including but not restricted to, income tax and stamp duty.

When I mentioned this to some people there was a sharp intake of breath. You can’t be serious. Giving income tax powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly? Think about what that means. The prospect of devolving income tax will concentrate the minds of the politicians and the electorate alike. It will provide a transparent link between the pound in your pocket and political decisions. This is normal politics.

Basil McCrea clarified that the initial focus could be on “the potential to create a series of carefully targeted measures to support specific objectives” rather than decisions to wholesale raise or lower income tax.

Devolving fiscal powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly will make all political parties more accountable to the local Northern Ireland taxpayer. And it will also increase the pressure on all political parties to make Northern Ireland work.

The speech moved onto NI21’s proposals to change political structures.

Who can look at the Northern Ireland Assembly and not be disappointed? The debates in the chamber are lacklustre, repetitive and frankly irrelevant … The real debates are taking place elsewhere. Unless the Assembly can up its game, public support will continue to drain away. Those that look at reviewing the structures in the Northern Ireland Assembly currently think everything is going ok. It is not. The people are fed up with the politicians.

The architects of the Good Friday Agreement assumed that the parties of government would act collaboratively for the common good. This, sadly, has not proved to be the case which is why we need to change the structures.

Opposition isn’t the only change NI21 have in mind. They also proposed renaming the “Office of First and deputy First Ministers” as the “Office of Joint First Minister”.

The reality is that Martin McGuinness is in all other respects First Minster in all but name. But at each election the DUP and Sinn Fein pretend that he isn’t. One says “never mind our policies and our ability, vote for us or Martin McGuinness will be first minister”. And the other side says “never mind our policies, never mind our abilities, never mind our delivery, vote for us, lend us your vote and we might make Martin McGuinness first minister” …

At a stroke we will remove the single most misleading, divisive and sectarian elements of our electoral system. It will allow members of public to vote for MLAs on merit rather than a sectarian headcount.

Reluctantly, Basil McCrea addressed the past in a section of the speech that good rhythm but poor argument.

I do not want to talk about the past. I want to talk about the future. But our airwaves and media are full of little else, so I must address it.

It goes without saying that individuals affected by the Troubles deserve and require individual and specific support. But those who argue that we cannot build a future until we have dealt with the past are wrong.

If we as a society are forced to relive every act of barbarism. If we continue to report every atrocity as if it happened yesterday. If we continue to open old wounds, if we continue to pick at the scabs of our past, we will never escape our past nor heal our community.

It does not matter how balanced the media coverage is. It does not matter how sympathetically a programme is produced. If you report on the Shankill bombing, the Greysteel massacre and the escape from the Maze all in one week, it will have an impact, there will be a reaction and we will all have to deal with consequences.

I believe in a free press. It is not for me to tell the media what to cover or how to cover it. I recognise the challenges presented by a 24/7 media cycle; the preference for easily digested news stories and the temptation to sensationalise any story.

But our more serious problems cannot be distilled into three minute packages, nor adequately explained by multiple opposing opinions in a studio. They are too complicated, they are too emotional, too difficult to resolve in such a manner. NI21 will not use victims as a political football: it will not help them, and it will not help society.

I’m still not sure what that means!

The leader’s speech finished with a call to action for the new party’s members.

This morning you were given a small badge. I want you to have the courage to wear that badge,. If you haven’t put it on, I want you to put it on. I want you to wear it and when people ask you what it means I want you to tell them about NI21.

Change can only be achieved by people talking. I want you to talk to your families, I want you to talk to your friends, I want you to have the quiet conversations that change people’s minds. And when you do, keep in mind the words of one of Ireland’s greatest poets …

Whereas Alasdair McDonnell finished his speech with a dream sequence, Basil McCrea opted to dissect a fragment of a poem!

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The Second Coming by WB Yeats published in 1921 … a protestant brought up in Dublin, reflecting on the turmoil of the age. The lines mean he predicted the loss of order and the eventual destruction of society by the fanatics of the day.

His phrase “The best lack all conviction” is an attack on the apathy of the most able in society, “while the worst are full of passionate intensity” is self explanatory. His poem is not without relevance to Northern Ireland today.

You can change this. You must speak to the apathetic, you must challenge those who do not vote.

Basil standing ovationRealistically, many of the new members do not vote, and this challenge is perhaps first to themselves.

I want you to leave this conference with the courage to speak out, the conviction to stand up for what you believe and a commitment to build a better Northern Ireland. The future of Northern Ireland is in your hands. The centre must hold.

Over lunch, delegates voted for Executive members and some the fringe meetings:

  • Political Polls – Are they useful or are they harmful and a hindrance to the political process.
  • Learning together – maximising common education
  • Where is the post-conflict generation

Unusually, one member of each fringe panel reflected back on their conversation at the start of the full afternoon conference session.

Brian Hayes, TD and Minister of State at the Department for Finance – and a long time friend of John McCallister – addressed the NI21 conference.

When I was telling a colleague in the Dáil yesterday that I was going to NI21 this morning he said he wasn’t aware of that particular road [laughs] but I suppose it’s your job to make sure he gets aware of it over the course of the coming weeks and months …

While I’m not recommending a glut of new parties south of the border, especially before the next general election, shaking up the political system by establishing a new party is always a good thing.

It’s the job of the Irish Government to engage with and dialogue with all shades of political opinion here in Northern Ireland and we’ll go wherever we’re invited, so thank you for inviting us.

Both Governments are the constitutional guarantors of the Agreement. Our collective responsibility is to encourage all political parties to work the agreement to its fullest potential. Northern Ireland is a better place for the new dispensation that is the Good Friday Agreement. We must build on it so as to realise the true reconciliation between all communities on this island.

Brian Hayes said that Northern Ireland dominated 1970s and 1980s Dublin politics.

The task of moving the country away from the aggressive nationalism that was such a feature of our society did take time. In the same way, the task of recognising the Irish dimension amongst the unionist community also took time to accept as a fundamental part of that new relationship.

The constitutional issue is resolved for this generation, despite what Mr Adams might say. That prism, which dominated our debates to the exclusion of all others in the 1970s and 1980s, has well and truly been removed. Now it’s time to reach a new accommodation and a new understanding between both parts of this island. Practical politics must be allowed to fill the vacuum. Doing things together that make a difference to ordinary people is the new reality.

He said that “having found agreement on the constitutional argument” the next task “must be to drive the economic and social agenda north and south of the border”.

I wish Richard Hass success in his efforts to find a resolution to very complex historical and legacy issues. But the future that we face North and South is not just about resolving past differences, it is also about integrating new identities into our society.

The remainder of his speech looked at the impact of wider issues.

A recent CSO survey indicated that there are now 190 different ethnic identities in the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is also beginning to experience significant ethnic diversity. What it means to be Irish, what it means to be British, what it means to be an Ulsterman, an Ulsterwoman, what it means to be a European –all these identities are in a state of flux.

Ex-President Mary McAleese’s ears may have pricked up when he said:

Over the centuries the rich human tapestry of this island has been woven from many different threads. Now new threads are being added and new patterns are being woven. Ireland will be richer for it. So let us reach the hand of friendship out to those who are new to this country, north and south.

He said “it matters to us North and South, how the people of Scotland vote in their referendum on independence next September”. But he added:

There has been too much navel gazing concerning issues like this by politicians in Dublin and Belfast. The Peace Process and North South relations are very important but they are not the only game in town. We need to lift our heads up and look at what is happening next door. We need to take a much keener interest in political developments in Britain; particularly on Britain’s relationship with the European Union.

Britain’s renegotiation of its EU membership and any referendum “matters very much to “Northern Ireland and the Republic” which have both benefitted from membership.

Where Britain to leave the European Union it would have very serious consequences for Northern Ireland and for North South cooperation. This debate should not be left to politicians only. Farm leaders, business leaders and other interested parties in Ireland north and south need also to consider how they might practically help or indeed influence the wider British debate …

It is in Ireland’s national interest that Britain should remain a full member of the European Union. Northern Ireland’s voice has been noticeably absent in the British debate on EU membership. I think it is time for that voice to be heard.

This island is on the edge of Europe. Britain’s disengagement from Europe would make the case for investment in Northern Ireland even more challenging than it is at the moment. Europe and especially our role as a small country within the Euro Zone must help Britain to resolve its relationship with Europe. On a practical level everybody needs to focus on how our two economies might grow and prosper and provide job opportunities in a sustainable way.

Brian Hayes highlighted the “bright future” for the Agri/Food sector in a world with a growing population. He saw opportunities for Ireland and Scotland to work together on wind energy and energy storage and added that “Northern Ireland’s strong engineering tradition and expertise should be mobilised to be a world leader in this important sector”.

I appreciate that fracking is a controversial technology. However energy is the lifeblood of any modern economy. We need to consider how these natural resources can be accessed in a safe manner for the common good without damaging the environment or putting people’s health and water supplies at risk.

On the international education market:

The provision of educational services to international students is one of the areas where Ireland has a comparative advantage, particularly as regards the English language. Just one figure: it has been estimated that at any one time there are 2.6 million Chinese students overseas. There are other big markets like India, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East. Provision of educational services is a very lucrative market. We can grow our share of the market providing an immediate income stream but also long term benefits for our collective economies …

We live in a very rapid period of change. It was Darwin who once said it isn’t necessarily the brightest who succeed but it is those who can adapt to change.

John McCallister wrapped up the inaugural NI21 conference. You can watch or listen to his twenty minute speech. He began in Irish …

A chathaoirligh, a cheannaire, a bhaill Thuaisceart Éireann Fiche hAon agus a chairde uilig.

… and translated “for those who don’t speak Irish, and for those who do”!

Chair, leader, members of NI21 and friends.

Twenty first century Northern Ireland cannot be defined by the old politics of tribalism. Today’s Northern Ireland wants a politics of respect, openness and a rich diversity, not a politics which feeds on and encourages tribal hatreds …

I left the UUP not because it was always wrong or because there were no good people in that party. I left the UUP because I became convinced that it was not, and could not be, the way of changing politics in Northern Ireland. I think the same about the SDLP and Alliance. Good people in both parties. But neither party capable of bringing the real change that Northern Ireland needs.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, the DNA of tribal politics is both part of the UUP and SDLP. And the Alliance? Well Alliance has become part of the furniture of tribal politics, a comfortable part of the establishment, propping up the realities of tribalism.

When I left the UUP I didn’t want to change parties, I wanted to change politics. That is why I am here today. And having spoken to so many of you at this conference, that is why you are here today.

Over the past year, we have seen tribal politics again attempt to shape the destiny of Northern Ireland. From the disruption caused by protests to the naming children’s play parks. From the irresponsible talk of ‘culture wars’ to attempts to hinder police officers going about their duty.

And because of inflammatory words from political leaders regarding parades in North Belfast and Castlederg, the people of Northern Ireland were almost collectively forced hold their breath any number of times over the past year as political cowardice and a failure in leadership led us back almost to the brink. The past year in itself gives a reason for us in NI21 to exist, to campaign, to strive to change politics in our society.

John McCallister delivering deputy leader speech at NI21's inaugural conferenceSinge the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, “over fifteen years of social and generational change and yet Northern Ireland has the same old Us and Them politics”.

There has to be a means of giving voice and hopes again to the optimism of 1998. There has to be a post-Agreement political party for a post-Agreement generation. There has to be not merely another political party, but another way of doing politics in this society. This is why we are NI21.

He was honest that NI21’s future will be “an uphill struggle”.

Campaigns to be fought for Europe, councils, Westminster and Stormont … The hard-work and determination that knocks on doors, that encourages citizens disengaged from politics to vote, that does the unglamorous but necessary work of building a new political party. And I will warn you that there will be times – perhaps many times – when the radical centre is an uncomfortable place to be. When the establishment parties beat the drums of tribal politics and the politics of yesteryear in an attempt to intimidate us.

John McCallister described John O’Dowd as “a competent minister” who is “in control od his brief and engages with the Assembly”. But he criticised the Education Minister’s “solo run” over the new funding formula to support schools in socially disadvantaged areas. The NI21 deputy leader didn’t disagree that “schools in socially-disadvantaged areas do need more support [and] greater financial resources”. But not by raiding the budgets of other schools to fund the initiative.

Rather than building a concensus around a social justice that recognises the need for additional support for schools in socially-disadvantaged areas, the Minister has brought division, sectionalism and conflict. We all lose when children are failed by our education system.

Yes in Northern Ireland we have some fine schools and some great exam results. But we also have a shameful – truly shameful – rate of educational underachievement.

John McCallister asked: “So what would NI21 do?” His answer was:

There should now be winners and losers when we are attempting to tackle educational underachievement. Early intervention is key. That is why we in NI21 are calling for a ring-fenced pupil premium for years one to three, directed to schools in socially disadvantaged areas.

Rather than fund universal free school meals with the extra £20m that Stormont will receive from Westminster’s scheme, NI21 believe that this money should fund a pupil premium of approximately £900 per disadvantaged pupil in years one to three “giving much needed additional support and resources”.

John McCallister reiterated NI21’s proposals to “change the architecture” of Stormont.

The structures of government created in 1998 were devised to provide a pathway from violence to peace, from mistrust to consensus. D’Hondt and power-sharing were designed to ensure that we ended perpetual government by a single group and perpetual opposition by another. It was designed to build consensus and trust to allow partnership to flourish. However this has not happened because the old politics of tribalism has remained.

Let me be absolutely clear. NI21 is entirely committed to power-sharing and partnership government. There can never be, must never be, a return to the old Stormont, to majority rule.

However, perpetual five party Government with no party in fear of being removed by the will of the people, with no party in fear of being held to account by an official opposition – this has allowed the tribalism of our political parties to flourish without check. It has allowed parties to practice bad government and call it an achievement …

Despite the public bickering, the botched decisions, the long-delayed policy announcements, the absence of collective responsibility, the solo-runs by ministers, the complete absence of leadership from the Executive during the past year in Northern Ireland, the fact that only 9% of people think it is doing a good job. Despite all of this, the Executive continues secure.

So John McCallister is introducing a Private Members Bill proposing an official Opposition.

We are issuing the challenge to other parties. Some of them make noises about the need for an opposition. Well, here’s your chance. Back this bill. Support this bill. Work with NI21 to bring change to how government works here, to give real choice to people of Northern Ireland.

And John couldn’t resist …

And to members of NI21 I say: Go back to your constituencies and prepare for opposition!

John McCallister sees “tribalism and narrow party loyalties” in some scrutiny committees in the Assembly, serving parties rather than people. Any opposition should have a significant presence on committee chairs, particularly the chair of the Public Accounts Committee.

NI21 also want changes in the selection of the Speaker so that it is not the appointment of a political party.

[The Speaker] should be voted on by a secret ballot by all backbenchers in the Assembly. And to protect the Speaker from any attempt to influence him or her by their party, on election we support elevating the Speaker from his or her constituency to become MLA for Stormont, ensuring they are free from attempts from party or Executive to influence them.

We all know that Peter and Martin are joint first ministers. We all know that one cannot order a cup of coffee without asking the other’s permission … It is time to sweep away the fiction and rename the office as that of the joint first ministers.

John McCallister finished:

We in NI21 are not about propping up tribal politics … We are about changing politics for a new Northern Ireland. A Northern Ireland at ease with the constitutional settlement. A Northern Ireland which identifies with the openness and tolerance of the 21st century United Kingdom. A Northern Ireland conformtable with its close, enduring relationship with our neighbours on this island that we share. A Northern Ireland proud of its place in Europe. A Northern Ireland open, diverse and respectful of diversity. A Northern Ireland that refuses to be defined by tribal politics. If this is your Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland for which you hope for, come and join us. Work with NI21 and let us build a progressive future for all.

John McCallister, Tona McKenzie, Basil McCrea

At the close of the conference, John McCallister spoke to me and reflected on the day and the challenges ahead for NI21.

Hopefully that gives you a flavour of NI21’s vision and their first conference.

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  • Charles_Gould

    Thanks Alan for taking the time out to go and to write up this sketch.

    *When you said you saw familiar UUP faces there does this mean they are defectors?

  • Alan,

    Great post as usual. I don’t know how we could ever understand the goings on in all of the Parties without your amazing contributions. If Mick ever reinstates the Slugger Awards, you should be at the front of the line.
    Thank you.

  • Mister_Joe – You could go to the conferences and find out!!

  • David McCann

    This was only my second party conference in NI and I was impressed by the huge work that Alan put in -so very well done.

    A few thoughts-I think it was very professional and the optics looked well.

    There were a lot of young people there and some interesting ideas like tax-however speaking to a few people who had stands there a lot of people were not that in favour of the idea. It’s one thing to float an idea but quite another have a detailed plan.

    I thought John’s speech was excellent and really conveyed what a likeable politician he is. Tina and other contributors did very well too. The only thing I would caution against is it was at times too much the Basil show-the last panel on the economy was a case in point-where he spoke much more than the other contributors and actually delayed John’s speech.

    However, things like this can be corrected going forward. NI21 needs three Ds- Discipline, direction and distinction to make it stand out from the other parties. Yesterday was a good start.

  • Charles_Gould


    I agree. I don’t think they should have had Basil in that economic panel at all. It was a panel of experts such as economists, etc. The questions from the floor all seemed to go to Basil and so the others – who should have been people NI21 could learn from – got squeezed out.

    The fact it delayed Johns speech was another example..

    On Sunday Politics, one of the commentators said that Basil’s speech rambled. It is better not to start telling anecdotes in a party leader speech.

  • Alan,
    I would go if I could but it’s too far and expensive (I live in Canada).

  • Mister Joe – valid excuse noted!!!

  • Charles_Gould


    Did David Rose the Secretary of the Party make a speech?

  • Comrade Stalin

    The only thing I would caution against is it was at times too much the Basil show

    They need to sort that problem out. Basil’s profile is pretty good, he doesn’t need to dominate things. If they don’t fix this people will become resentful and give up.

    I thought the income tax idea was brave, and timely given that Wales has been offered powers over this. But it’s a tricky issue to go into an election with, it’s too easy to suggest the motivation for requesting the powers is to put taxes up.

  • Comrade Stalin

    And alongside Courage, Conviction and Commitment, they may want to add Cash! While some businesses are obviously helping out with goods or services ‘in kind’, mounting election campaigns in less than six months time will be an expensive test of NI21′s staying power.

    This is pretty crucial and NI21’s demographics may actually be a hindrance.

    Having lots of bright young things around brimming with ideas and enthusiasm is great and all, and having a talent pool to put on the ground and do canvassing etc is important, but by and large these are also people who either don’t have a career or are embarking on one, and accordingly don’t have any money. In the Assembly elections in 2011 the UUP spent nearly £100K. That’s a lot of bread, and it’s going to take more than a few bake sales and subscription drives to raise it while meeting the expenses of the day to day running of the party.

    Without seeking to get personal about things Basil does not have the best of reputations for managing financial resources. My recollection is that years back, possibly 2007, he opened two constituency offices, discovered that he couldn’t afford to do this and had to close one and fire at least one staff member. I’d hope for NI21’s sake that Tina has better bookkeeping skills than he does.

  • sherdy

    Alan, – Is such an extensive report warranted for such a small party?
    Maybe I’m getting old, but I dosed off long before I got half-way through.

  • aquifer

    “Between Alliance, NI Conservatives and NI21 there is definitely room to reshape and redefine the centre ground in Northern Ireland politics.”

    All three need to be brave enough to gouge chunks out of one another on policy and performance differences, and to take some principled stands, if they are to tumble the sectarian tug of war that passes for politics around here.

    Being another polite piggy in the middle party, or Basil’s little soap box, will not be enough.

    They do have a chance. Electorates get fickle, and NI has a lot of internet penetration that could be used for web broadcasting, social networking etc.

    They need a whole front row with some younguns to show they care about youth unemployment.

  • Charles – David Rose spoke at various points, particularly during the constituency session which I think was streamed by NI21 themselves, but I didn’t record it.

    Sherdy – it puts the conference content on the record for years to come.

  • Red Lion

    I went along for the morning only, and yes it was my first ever conference.

    Overall I felt very positive about it. It felt modern and cool, but not slick or over managed or over staged. There was a nice informality and friendliness about it. Felt comfortable being there, and I guess a lot of newbies were in the same boat so they hit the right tone.

    There was a lot going on, there did seem to be momentum and growth in the short period since NI21 inception. They are a fresh full-of-life injection onto an otherwise stagnant and depressing NI political scene. I think most of people in the room would not otherwise have shown an interest in politics. Hopefully it can be sustained with viable and vibrant local associations.

    I felt Basil’s tax idea was in part a ploy to highlight how DUP-SF prefer to deal in tribal politics rather than the bread and butter. A general theme was leaving constitutional politics behind and focus on the economy, as well as reform of Stormont institutions. There were a lot of things said which resonated, but got the impression this was one party who were going to do their best to follow up talk with action. There seemed to be little by way of empty soundbytes, or saying nice things but knowing you are doing the polar opposite.

    I got the impression of a fair bit of middle classness about the party, a lot of nice suits being worn etc. Maybe this is unfair,maybe all conferences are like so, but its a label NI21 should try to avoid as best they can.

    I did wonder how they afforded the Europa etc, but I know nothing of how party finances work.

    I noticed that they had a fair few names called out for their East Antrim and East Belfast constituency associations (relatively speaking). This may prove crucial in helping NI21 gain electoral traction. A lot rides on the work these associations put in, I think they need results here.

    David Rose was very positive, knowledgeable, and realistic and his PUP background helped expand the range of people involved.

    I wondered if one or two defectors from other parties might be unveiled wasn’t to be.

    Thanks to Alan for a great piece of work

  • Charles_Gould

    Red Lion

    “I got the impression of a fair bit of middle classness about the party, a lot of nice suits being worn etc. Maybe this is unfair,maybe all conferences are like so, but its a label NI21 should try to avoid as best they can.”

    Interesting point. I’d agree they don’t want a label.

    That said….

    An interesting thing about NI politics is the following. In most parts of UK, Ireland, EU, turnout is greater among middle class and lower among working class.

    But in NI the reverse is true; that’s almost unique of NI!

    NI21 seek to bring people out who don’t vote – a hard thing to do.

    But if they “stimulate” the middle classes, then it could suggest that they are reaching parts of society other NI parties don’t.

  • Comrade Stalin

    “Between Alliance, NI Conservatives and NI21 there is definitely room to reshape and redefine the centre ground in Northern Ireland politics.”

    The Conservatives are frankly not even players at this point. I’d be shocked if they managed 1% in this European election, which is what they got the last time they ran their own candidate. There is nowhere they could even win a council seat.

    That leaves NI21 and Alliance. Reading these articles on NI21’s conference I’m still not clear what NI21’s differentiator from Alliance is (especially as there is no policy set to actually assess their platform).

    It follows that they are going to run in elections as a rebranded Alliance Party which in turn suggests that their cachet comes from being able to sell Alliance policies to voters better than Alliance does. Or, put another way, there is a huge untapped reservoir of Alliance voters out there that Alliance has spent 40 years trying and failing to win but which Basil will come out from the left field and snatch for himself without so much as a manifesto to his name. Put that way, this all seems very unlikely.

  • Charles_Gould

    Comrade Stalin

    Interesting post. But here’s a question: why are all those 250 people in Europa not joining Alliance? Why didn’t they join Alliance? They seem to be people who were politically dormant – “recovering apathetics” as they said – until NI21 came along. Why did Tina not join Alliance? etc. Does that suggest there is something different? Or is it all just down to magnetic personae of Basil and John?

  • Comrade Stalin


    I think those 250 people have been persuaded that NI21 is different from all the other parties. They’re going to be very disappointed when election time comes and they have to roll up their sleeves and play the game like everyone else.

    I recognize the account of NI21’s conference very much; Alliance used to be like that in the 1990s. People in Alliance used to think that they were entitled to votes because they are so nice. I myself used to believe that people would vote Alliance as soon as they could see how nice they were. It took the near death experience of the 2000s to toughen people up. The party is now much more realistic about what seats can be won, and what needs to be done to win them.

  • sherdy

    Alan, – I just wonder if the party will be in existence long enough, or be influential enough to be worth remembering.

  • Red Lion

    Charles that is a good question, and it is a question Alliance should be genuinely asking themselves. NI21 have come from somewhere, I posted long ago that there was a possible swathe of dormant support for a genuinely moderate unionist/status.quo-of-sorts party liberal and pluralist in nature.

    NI21 are not agnostic on the union, they are in favour, but it is a reformed plurarist liberal union, a union that is assumed to be there, in complete contrast to the right wing DUP little ulster version. That NI21 vibe resonates with a lot of people.

    Also I think there is a feeling of Alliance now being part of the old order, devoid of inspiration to break up the carve up of DUP/SF. New ideas and invigoration are needed from outside the Stormont dysfunction, and NI21 looks the most roadworthy vehicle so far. We’ll see if the exhaust falls off.

    But, there ARE overlaps with NI21 and Alliance. Why shouldn’t there be – we have 2 unionist parties, 2 nationalist parties, and now we have 2 centre ground parties. Its healthy imo, normal politics is showing signs of breaking out.

    It was inevitable that something like NI21 would happen sooner or later. Perhaps Stormont dysfunction could have been coped with, but when the idiocy of the flags protest happened, dormant frustrated people were finally moved to action.

  • Red Lion

    Comrade, I don’t think NI21 saw themselves as being nice and I didn’t detect arrogance that they had a right to votes, on the contrary in fact there was explicit acknowledgement right through the conference of the fight and hard work that needs to happen, as well as the pending adversity. There was realism, but belief in a conviction of values bringing people together.

  • Master McGrath

    I’m just old perhaps but when I look at the rediscovery of ‘centre ground’ parties like NI21 I think what we could have done under the banner of the NILP before violent sectarian politics destroyed the alternative to the dominance of political blocks and blockheads.
    Still I think that NI21 is a real threat to the established parties and their bully boy tactics – DUP/SF are not the danger to the established order now as they are the established order and don’t know how to deal with dissenting views about how to organise the future.
    The arrival of NI21 makes for living in interesting times.

  • Comrade Stalin


    I understand the criticism that Alliance are becoming part of the problem, but I don’t accept it as I will explain.

    Believe me I would much prefer to have a proper government and opposition. But this is not likely to happen in the short or medium term. The current system exists because people are mostly voting along tribal lines. I believe that will change but it’s going to take decades. Alliance already went down the road of trying to get the parties to change it. Back during the assembly crisis when redesignation occurred Alliance made it a condition that the parties would talk about reforming the d’Hondt system and the tribal bloc voting. The parties discussed it – briefly – but refused to consider reforms.

    Once you accept that the current system is (sadly) likely to remain for quite some time you then have to consider how you maximize your impact. Alliance spent several assembly terms outside the executive and are painfully aware of how impossible it is to do anything noteworthy from there. Moreover, Alliance has traditionally always been about participation; taking an imperfect situation and make the most of it. If it were not for that then Alliance would not even be taking their seats in the assembly.

    NI21 are faced with the same situation. With only two MLAs they will find it even harder than Alliance did to get attention from the Speaker. They too will find that being outside the executive is frustrating. They will also find that it is very difficult to persuade the electorate to vote for them on the basis of reforming the assembly. They will end up repeating the same passage that Alliance did – assuming they win enough seats to obtain an executive minister (or obtain cross community support to nominate a justice minister).

    I’m also accounting for the fact that Jim Allister has made more impact as a one man opposition in the Assembly than Basil has in his several years as an MLA. Allister has landed punches; Basil seems to end up making a fool out of himself, criticising and nitpicking for the sake of it. That’s a problem too, as once you persuade people there should be an opposition you have to ask who they trust to do the opposing.

    The NI21/Alliance policy similarities are more than an overlap – it is easier to list where the parties differ than where they are the same. It means one of the two parties is redundant, and that they will therefore cannabalise each other’s vote.

  • Charles_Gould


    I know its hard to judge – and it’s a question I hesitate to ask – but were the people in the hall “cross-community”. Were the main movers and shakers cross-community?

  • Comrade Stalin

    Just for the avoidance of doubt, I would be overjoyed to see NI21 sweeping the board and getting a huge bunch of MLAs elected.

    I’ve been around too long (but nowhere near as long as Master McGrath, I’ll wager) and seen too many false dawns to believe that this will happen.

    What I do hope is that when the NI21 supporters receive their first defeat they don’t give up and run away.

  • Charles_Gould

    CS makes an astute point about Jim Allister and Basil McCrea.

    I think Basil and Jim both understand their own (very different) constituencies and see that there are votes. But in the Assembly Jim knows how to ask a killer question, Basil tends to waffle.

    I think in North Antrim Jim will increase his vote and not just from Ultra-Unionists. His opposition to the DUP is seen as useful.

  • Red Lion

    Charles, I don’t think i heard religion mentioned once except to let us know Yeats was a protestant, and constitutional politics aka ‘the union’ barely mentioned.

    No doubt Allister is a sharp one man politician.

    Comrade, I think every false dawn is of its time. Now on one hand, we are possibly just one sectarian atrocity away from a retaliation and a spiral of violence. Violence has been speeding up again in NI and there have been some hits and way too many near misses. The whole thing could unravel.

    At the same time, there is evidence of moderating factors in other bits of NI life. Religion is becoming less important, more people are ‘other’ or Northern Irish, we have immigration, London and Dublin love each other, loads don’t vote, change is occurring. I do believe there are a set of circumstances that makes it a possibility that the DUP-SF carve up has reached its high water mark, and centre ground parties can bear fruit. I remain hopeful, but not complacent, that NI21 can be a vehicle for a realignment.

  • NI21 need to learn from Jim … and quickly. They don’t need to replicate his manner, but they do need to learn how to magic a presence out of nowhere (actually lots of background work, questions, research and a rather smart if tiny team that back him up).

    On the suit issue – frankly, NI21 is a middle class party that’s not going to overly work to pick up working class votes at this stage, but it’s rhetoric does include building a better NI for everyone.

    Unlike Borgen, landslide elections that bring parties from nowhere to the top don’t happen. (Not sure if that will turn out to be a spoiler!) NI21 need to be in this for a quite a number of election cycles before they have any chance of building up a profile of local good deeds and support worthy of lots of elected members.

  • Ruarai

    Quick reaction:

    I think these guys are interesting, good luck to them.

  • “The current system exists because people are mostly voting along tribal lines. I believe that will change but it’s going to take decades.”


    This is a much more realistic assessment than that of Seamus Close in 2001 who told me that after one full Assembly under the GFA system voters would begin to abandon the traditional sectarian parties on a massive scale and vote for Alliance. My fear is that now with the emergence of NI21 the two parties will split the centrist vote and leave both without a quota in many constituencies. This can be avoided by both engaging in a vigorous policy debate during the next election campaign and thereby attract more media attention and, hopefully, more votes. Alliance didn’t take advantage of the appearance of the NIWC in the late 1990s, but hopefully it can learn from its mistake then.

    So, is this the most use of Irish at a center party convention since Sean Cushnahan was Alliance leader in the 1980s?


    Thank you very much for the full reporting and the links. I probably won’t get through the links until sometime later this week.

  • That should read John Cushnahan, not Sean.

    I listened to the speech. He takes a while to get going–he really wasn’t in good form until halfway through the speech. But even if it didn’t have a good start, it did have a good middle and a good ending. The quote from Yeats was inspired.

  • Comrade Stalin


    Agreed with that. The downside, of course, is that Jim’s effectiveness partially comes from the fact that he doesn’t care if the executive/assembly collapses. NI21 are not trying to bring the system down which makes the job a bit more tricky.

    Also agreed that they need to plan for a few election cycles of initially poor results and how they are going to respond to that. Not do a Women’s Coalition and fold immediately when their seats are lost. That is, of course, easier said than done; people have to eat and if you don’t have full time elected representatives it’s extremely tricky to hold things together.

  • Morpheus

    In the Police Commissioner elections voter turnout was as low as 15%. I know that’s not comparable with Assembly elections but the point I am making is that the Police Commissioners are now in office, doing the job, drawing the salaries and they don’t care about voter turnout. I honestly don’t think the politicians will give a fiddlers if turnout is 50%, 40% or 10%

  • Morpheus

    Nads, wrong thread. Ignore above 🙂

  • OneNI

    Sam McBride hits the nail on the head in the Newsletter an ‘unending’ speech that failed to nail any colours to any masts. A pathetic ‘all things to all people’ message that probably wont inspire many new voters but probably will steal a few from UUP and Alliance.
    Apparently there is a viscious behind the scenes battle for the Euro nomination. My money is on Basil to win – after all its his party

  • Drumlins Rock

    From the UUP benches– the impression I get is almost everyone is glad to be rid of Basil, disappointed in John, but in general feel they were a much bigger threat within the party than they now pose as NI21. No-one I know takes the threat seriously, and treat them as a side show, it is only in Lagan Valley & South Down that any political attacks on them have been made.

    Many who worked with Basil previously are waiting for an eneviable crash and burn, whether he brings the whole thing down with him is the question.

    As for the cash, I remember them have a quite attractive Website even if devoid of policy, but it is now looks like a DIY cheapy, is this tempory or a sign of things to come?

  • Granni Trixie

    I would be interested to known if basil was queried re his ‘lovely girlies’ mistake and if the models so prominent at their launch have lasted the pace.

  • Red Lion

    Don’t believe there was any models there, though there seemed to be a fair number of females in the audience and taking part generally..

    I think Tina McKenzie is an all round highly impressive person. Kind of embodies what NI21 are about, never involved in politics before, breaks old tribal ties, and has an abundance of personal qualities. I wonder if she would consider standing for election. Does anybody know if its the done thing for a party chair (or secretary as I thought David Rose’s talents also stood out) to run for election? If they do stand do they give up chair/secretary role?

  • Comrade Stalin


    That version of events chimes pretty much with my understanding of things.

    oh dear ..

  • Drumlins Rock


    Back to money, most parties raise a sizeable amount of their finances from membership fees, I presume Alan is right with his £10 for NI21?, maybe I should join them and save a few quid! Numbers are important but that is yet another funding source far from maximumised.

    I’m sure the Europa was expensive ( not to mention the late night entertainment after! ) but heard they had a whip round to cover some of the costs !

  • Red Lion

    Drumlins Rock,

    Of course the UUP are glad to be rid of Basil, he was exposing the UUP’s hypocrisy and duplicity on flags, y’know the UUP being happy with designated days in some locations yet demanding 365 in Belfast. He was also critical of the UUP’s failure in condemning riots from the off. He was also critical of the unionist unity stunt in Mid Ulster, and chronic inability to think outside tribal zero-sum.

  • Red Lion

    I meant to add..

    there was no way 2 men with consistent principles and forsight could have stayed in the UUP without criticizing it.

    Genuine question – what is the difference between the DUP and UUP in terms of core values and policy??

  • RyanAdams

    “From the UUP benches– the impression I get is almost everyone is glad to be rid of Basil, disappointed in John, but in general feel they were a much bigger threat within the party than they now pose as NI21. No-one I know takes the threat seriously, and treat them as a side show, it is only in Lagan Valley & South Down that any political attacks on them have been made.

    Many who worked with Basil previously are waiting for an eneviable crash and burn, whether he brings the whole thing down with him is the question.”

    No need to be smug DR – The UUP won’t have a plurality of ‘benches’ come the next assembly election, or even a seat in Belfast.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I’m sure the Europa was expensive ( not to mention the late night entertainment after! ) but heard they had a whip round to cover some of the costs !

    DR, that sounds sadly like Basil’s accounting practices in force.

    What happens if a political party folds holding debts – are the membership jointly liable ? A party is not limited liability ..

  • Charles_Gould

    The UUP do seem to be a more united party now. They had their party conference recently and though it was fairly unmemorable stuff Mike Nesbitt put forward some ideas such as having a mental health centre for victims.

    Mike Nesbitt gets a lot of criticism but I think he is at his best when he is talking about victims and the past. Those discussions with Declan Kearney for example, he tends to come across quite well I think because he is goes on his own instinct and passion. The victims issue is just something he is more at home with and I think his voters relate to him well on that.

    I think victims have recently started to play a greater role in things. I have found it very moving to listen to victims and I think it is very worthwhile to hear from them, because they tell the horrible truths and show up the complexities. I’d like to hear more from them.

    By contrast NI21 is rather poor on issues like the past and victims. Alan in Belfast rightly pointed out that Basil’s speech was vague on victims, it sounded like he didn’t really want to hear from them.

    NI21 wants to move on, which is admirable, but somehow just seem to want to let bygones be bygones rather than trying to deal with legacy issues like the past and victims.

  • Granni Trixie


    Funny enough for me a most disappointing thing about Nesbitt us how he tends to draw on victims issues to score points . would gave
    Expected that having acquired knowledge as a Victims Commissioner he hd expanded his capacity to get above narrow sectarian politics.

    I do agree with you however that we must attend to stories of the experience of victims of the troubles (often the walking wounded) .

  • Charles_Gould


    Funny that! You make an interesting point: we need to hear more about the victims and we must learn from them but we must not exploit them, I have found them very moving and I want to hear more from them with every year that passes.

  • Red Lion

    As well as those victims who want truth commissions, dealing with the past etc, there are also I think many victims who don’t want anything to do with such mooted processes.

    They know that such processes are likely to be incomplete, only partial, better for one man than another, and possibly raise more questions than it can be answered. Whose truth is the truth?

    I, like many, know relatives of such victims. They often suffer in silence and with dignity. Having their suffering kicked about as a political football nightly on the evening news only serves to retraumatise and fester their sores, for them its not conducive to healing.

    They know that nothing is likely to take the pain away. Except perhaps one thing – that they see their children and grandchildren live happy in a stable society. This is the dynamic that NI21 are drawing upon. Fund professional mental health and trauma services for sure, though, highly important.

  • Charles_Gould

    Red Lion

    Is it NI21 policy that victims stories should be *forgotten about*?

  • antamadan

    I always respected Alliance big-time, but NI21 is the first clearly unionist party that I can really believe-in when they talk liberal (multiculturalism/Cross-community). It’s a great relief; all the usual doubting of people’s motives (for good reasons) is draining !

    I hope that that the SDLP-Alliance-NI21 middle-ground emerge strongly, even if long-term I’m hoping for a UI rather than NI21’s reasonable UK alternative. Go néiri libh/ good wishes.

  • Red Lion

    Charles – no, I don’t believe so.

    But obviously victims wishes are not homogenous. Some don’t wish to revisit the past.