NI21 issue open call for council candidates: fresh politics or desperate measures?

Relatively few people seem to wake up in the morning and decide to be a politician. Existing party activists recognise the gifts and passion in people they see and invite them to join, and invite them to run.

Time and after time at the Alliance conference, and again at the Green Party conference, speakers recounted who had approached them and got them involved.

The power of the personal invitation.


ni21 needs youNI21’s approach somehow flies in the face of this with its open call for candidate volunteers.

The difficulty in starting up a new party could hardly be overestimated. Growing sustainably, creating structures, defining a culture, deciding on policies that won’t suit everyone who chose to join, dealing with discipline. And that’s before you have to persuade people to climb ladders, trudge through the rain to deliver leaflets and lose weight on the campaign trail.

But an open invitation to apply to stand for council smacks of desperation rather than strategy.

There may be some method in NI21’s madness in delaying announcement of their Euro and Council candidates to maximise the slim media publicity they can hope to achieve. However, it points to a party that’s struggling to overcome the inertia to reach the start line of the May race.

Converting support for the notion of moderate politics into the reality of a thriving moderate party is proving even harder than John or Basil imagined. While a party insider once commented to me that NI21 may not be the vehicle that eventually has success and grows, the first election does feel like it could be the beginning of the end rather than the end of the beginning. It would be sad to see NI21 implode so soon.

But if you’re fresh faced and wanting to put yourself forward as an NI21 candidate, it sounds like they’d be delighted to hear from you.

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  • FuturePhysicist

    I always think writing off small parties is bad, had it not been for Bob McCarney’s UKUP and other small groups I doubt the DUP would have overturned the UUP, like Sinn Féin with the SDLP. The effect of the Vanguard Unionists on the UUP as well, indeed PDs on Ff, the Democratic left on Labour Ireland, the Social Democratics on the Lib Dems, the Co-Op party on Labour UK. Moderation is not the problem, both the DUP and Sinn Féin needed to move towards the centre ground to grow, abandoning it like other political splinter groups such as TUV or Erígí is clearly even less a favourable choice with our electorate than what is there from the UUP and SDLP.

    NI21 have problems, as do Alliance, the SDLP and the UUP, but people go into politics to fix problems. The first three are at least picking their battles and sometimes competing sometimes for the same group. It’s the UUP who are in danger, because with pact politics with the DUP they are in danger of conceding that there is no principle difference between them and the DUP.

  • Coll Ciotach

    Sounds like desperation – why would anyone want to stand for them now, why would anyone want to vote for them now, dragging them in from the streets ?

  • FuturePhysicist

    To expect “Èireann an Tuascairt Fiche a hAoan” to get workers out of fellow travellers right away was going to be difficult, but let’s be realistic here, even among the bigger parties there are some issues about getting some candidates in some constituencies, be that Sinn Féin or the SDLP in North Down, DUP in Newry, UUP in Foyle, Alliance in any place near the border.


    So much potential, but didn’t keep up momentum. Making up policy on the hoof, no strategy. Lot of time spent posing for photos at irrelevant events. Little time spent building a party, membership, constituency associations or even a clear policy document. What exactly would these candidates be standing for? Simply being ‘fresh’ isn’t enough to earn anyone’s vote.

    Open auditions for council candidates – just how many members does this party have? If there was a market for new fresh politics surely they should be lines out the door with people wanting to stand? As for the euros, it’ll be a case of who draws the shortest straw, it’s doomed to failure at this late stage. If it’s not Basil or John it’ll say a lot about the confidence they have in their own party.

    NI21 can only be salvaged with proper leadership. Until then, Aspire To Better

  • Charles_Gould

    FP makes some interesting points.

    Nicholas Whyte (I believe) has pointed out in the past that the broad unionist community actually do have a track record of being quite willing to change parties: the Conservatives in 1992, back to UUP in 1997, UKUP in 1998, DUP in 2003, TUV in Euro 2009, Naomi Long in 2010, etc.

  • CG,

    I’ll expand on that and say that no party should take any supporter’s vote for granted. Northern Ireland’s electorate is pretty sophisticated in some ways, and I find a lot more evidence for tactical voting, and votes for personality rather than party, than is sometimes expected.


    You’re absolutely right that finding candidates is a problem for every party. I suspect that it’s got worse rather than better over the years; time was that engagement in politics by whatever means was perceived as almost a civic duty, but now it’s more of a weirdo minority interest (speaking as one of the weirdoes).

    But having said that, we’ve known when the elections are for some time now; I think that starting the candidate recruitment process less than two months before the vote doesn’t sound superbly well organised. Back in the day when I was involved myself, I’d have wanted candidates in winnable seats identified at least six months out, and preferably longer.

    This is mainly to give them a chance to raise their profile locally, but to be honest it’s also partly to see how they work out and to give both party and potential candidate a chance to change their minds, should it prove necessary. Every party organiser will whisper dark tales of unsuitable candidates who were caught just in time – or, worse, weren’t!

  • I wouldn’t want to point fingers solely at the DUP, but some of their new council candidates look less than convincing on paper as public servants with a desire to get stuck into issues rather than council banquets. But then they have the luxury hassle of having to vet and field such large numbers of candidates …

  • Charles_Gould

    Nicholas: Indeed. That list I gave is as much a warning to the new parties that they may get support for a while, but holding on to it is another matter. Only two unionist parties have passed the test of time.

  • DC

    I’ll expand on that and say that no party should take any supporter’s vote for granted. Northern Ireland’s electorate is pretty sophisticated in some ways, and I find a lot more evidence for tactical voting, and votes for personality rather than party, than is sometimes expected.

    Any examples to go with this?

  • Drumlins Rock

    Margaret Richie Unionist vote in South Down? You can also look at the difference between the UUP council vote & Assembly vote on the same day.

  • Gopher

    I think DC is referring to Alliance in East Belfast.

    Volatility only really exists on the Eastern Seaboard.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Just came across this reference to the video, rather damming if true!

    Ed Simpson ‏@EdSimpsonNI · 9h
    Er, @NI21official why are you telling lies in this video of yours: … New to politics? @NWMcNickle has stood before!

  • Gopher

    As for the opening post it is both desperate and practical. I imagine it would be difficult to be mildly socially liberal, hedonistic or godless and want put yourself through the mill of standing for election in NI. Hopefully there are some people with the courage to give it a go.

  • Son of Strongbow

    NI21’s call conjures a picture of Basil McCrea walking the roads and byways pushing a cart and ringing a bell – ‘bring out your ………’

  • IJP

    This is honestly one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in politics.

    On what grounds are prospective candidates to be vetted? What capabilities are they supposed to have? What are they supposed to believe in? Don’t forget, at least one has already been rejected – why?

    This is, of course, to leave aside the fact that I have already been knocking doors for a month; I spent the weekend labelling election communications; I use my lunchtimes to deliver specific leaflets to various areas based on the information they have told us when we called in the past. There are tens more like me in my party alone, and no doubt in many others. NI21 is going to beat us by putting out online videos desperately seeking candidates who, by definition, have absolutely no record on attainment in the community they seek to represent.

    Let’s just call it what it is – bonkers.

    Politics is a skill. And it’s actually hard work. You can’t just randomly bring people in from outside, win elections and gain influence – any more than you could randomly pull 11 men off the street and win the World Cup.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I spent a fruitless evening yesterday trying to argue with NI21 supporters about this.

    They can’t see that a failure to nominate candidates this close to an election that everyone knew was coming a year or more ago marks out the party’s incompetence and will almost certainly seal its doom.

    They’re trying to pretend that they’re saving the candidate announcements until the last minute, but this is obviously not true as one prospective candidate was tweeting about leafleting in East Belfast some weeks ago. It sounds to me like they’ve had a panic.


    Bob McCartney (QC) and his UKUP were not really an independent party; it was a proxy for the DUP and his political career since 95 was facilitated by the DUP. During the North Down by-election in that year, Peter Robinson attended Bob’s strategy meetings and had the DUP activists get the Castlereagh vote out for him. As soon as the DUP had accomplished their principal objective of eliminating the Ulster Unionists, Bob – and his offshoot party (the originally named “Northern Ireland Unionist Party” consisting of Cedric Wilson and various other unremarkable entities) melted away into nothing.

  • Gopher

    Not even remotely true Comrade, the good people of North Down bought in to his project of being British rather than being Protestant Nationalists. Bob abused his mandate to fight a battle a day along constitutional lines and his electorate abandoned him to a whole host of moderate parties in the assembly elections and Sylvia Hermon in the Westminster election. The DUP had f**** all to do with his defeat.

  • Tir Chonaill Gael

    “There are tens more like me in my party alone…”

    what party would that be these days?

  • “and I find a lot more evidence for tactical voting, and votes for personality rather than party, than is sometimes expected.

    Any examples to go with this?”

    “I think DC is referring to Alliance in East Belfast.

    Volatility only really exists on the Eastern Seaboard.”

    @DC, Gopher,

    I don’t know whether or not you consider North Down to be on the “Eastern Seaboard.” I think it is by far the most volatile constituency in NI, definitely the most volatile unionist constituency. Over the years it has supported UUP, UKUP, independents, Alliance, NIUP (?) and Alliance. It is the one constituency that the Conservatives have made a real showing in.

  • @CS,

    If what you say is true, it makes Conor Cruise O’Brien look even more foolish for lining up behind the UKUP and then justifying it in his memoirs by saying that he couldn’t support the UUP or the DUP because they were too sectarian. He has never explained why he didn’t back Alliance.

    Incidentally, it was my impression that Alliance only contested a limited number of seats its first couple of times out and then let the party’s performance help it to spread.

  • IJP

    Not really. Alliance initially won seats in Derry, Newry and Fermanagh – where it rarely even contests now.

    But the situation in 1970-73 was entirely different from now.

  • Gopher


    Eastern Seaboard I would class as East Belfast, North Down, Strangford and Down. Those areas seem to have electorates that are prepared not to vote like sheep.

    tmitch57. Dont be listening to CS on Bob McCartney he championed himself as non sectarian British and North Down backed him but when his ego lost all control and he was shown to be a martinet over the tiniest of issues regarding life here the voters had enough and elected moderates.

  • Tochais Síoraí

    Mmm, sounds a bit desperate. They’ll get a few cranks anyway but that might be it. And it’s all very late in the day, is it not?

    Have they been approaching high profile non-political people in the various constituencies on the quiet over the last year to stand or at least get involved? If they have & been refused wholesale then the game might be up already. If they haven’t been making such approaches then why not?

  • David Crookes

    “Ladies and gentleman, this is your stewardess speaking. We regret any inconvenience the sudden cabin movement might have caused. This is due to periodic air pockets we encountered. There’s no reason to become alarmed and we hope you enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?”

  • Comrade Stalin


    It is a matter of fact to anyone who was involved in that election that the DUP were heavily invested in Bob McCartney’s success knowing that he was the only candidate who could prevent the Ulster Unionists from winning the seat. The DUP at a senior level provided material assistance to McCartney’s campaign. I’m not saying that McCartney was a secret DUP member or that he solicited DUP assistance; but the DUP were very happy to help him and he didn’t refuse them.

    I remember a number of things that were said about Bob that later turned out not to be true. For example, it was put about that he could take the Labour whip. Of course, he didn’t. There was a lot of talk about closer links with the UK. Bugger all happened. I don’t remember anything of note that he said during his time in Westminster.

    Note that I would not call McCartney a Paisleyite or a bigot. But he certainly wasn’t interested in progressing things.

  • DC and Tmitch57,

    Sorry to be slow in replying – it’s been a busy couple of days.

    I said:

    “Northern Ireland’s electorate is pretty sophisticated in some ways, and I find a lot more evidence for tactical voting, and votes for personality rather than party, than is sometimes expected.”

    Of course the volatility of the North Down electorate is the most striking example of this – Sylvia Hermon’s vote in both elections that she fought as a UUP candidate was way ahead of the votes the party has got in any other North Down election, and her vote as an independent was further ahead again; part of this is Alliance not standing in 2001 and then the DUP not standing in 2010, but that’s not the dominant element.

    But it’s not only the fluffy areas of expanded Belfast. Kieran Deeney in West Tyrone in 2005 clearly got votes from 1800 or so people who would normally have voted for one of the Unionist parties. Mark Durkan gets a thousand or so votes from similar sources; Margaret Ritchie perhaps two thousand. (Though equally they clearly outpoll their party anyway; they are getting voters who don’t vote for anyone at all in other elections.) Going the other direction, I reckon about 900-1000 votes for Ian Paisley jr in 2010 came from people who normally vote Nationalist.

    And it’s not just at Westminster elections either. A well-placed and well-organised independent candidate – ie one who has chosen to run some time earlier than six weeks before the elections – can usually break through, especially in smaller districts. Independents have been the largest or second largest grouping on Moyle Council (the smallest of the outgoing 26) since it was created in 1973.

    It is easy to fall into the trap of describing all of this as “tactical voting” and minimising its importance, or indeed looking for sinister deals which cause people to vote against their perceived “type”. But the fact is that if a “Nationalist voter” votes Unionist, then she is ipso facto not a Nationalist voter, and models of voting behaviour that equate census identification too closely with political preference are doomed to disappointment. I know – I’ve made that mistake often enough myself!

  • mjh

    Indeed Nicholas

    And you could add Alasdair McDonnell to the list of those who get substantial votes from across the divide.

    But those are only the tip of the iceberg. Around 20% of voters appear to caste votes on the basis of personality rather than party. Most of this takes place within the designations – unionist voters selecting a unionist of one party and casting their second preference for a unionist candidate of a different party. Or a nationalist doing similar with nationalist candidates.

    Of course most of the time these tend to largely cancel each other out – so we rarely notice just how sophisticated the voters can be.

  • IJP

    mjh (and Nicholas)

    I think it’s actually even more complex than that – people will vote for a party, for an individual, against a party, against an individual… but usually actually a combination of these with some weighted more than others! By the way, the decision may well be primarily emotional rather than strictly rational too.

    My own polling in 2011 found that 29% had changed party from the previous year, which does indicate there are far more floating voters out there than parties themselves usually reckon on. (It was a relatively low sample, by the way, but I’d suggest at least 20% – your figure – often switch.)

  • Sure. I don’t want to exaggerate either – in most election, 80%-90% of people do cast their votes on the basis of party preference, and Northern Ireland has a very slow electoral cycle; the shift from UUP to DUP and from SDLP to SF of the early 2000’s won’t be quickly undone (and when it ultimately is undone, for nothing is permanent, there’s every likelihood that the next dominant parties will be new groups that have not been founded yet).

    Taking this back to where the discussion started, this is in part because good candidates will tend to join successful or rising parties – it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but the fact is that a good campaign exploits both a consistent and attractive central party message, and the sorts of hardworking candidates who are able to appeal to the 10%-20% who are casting their votes on other grounds. And every vote matters to the candidate or party who gets it, whatever the reason it may have been cast for them.

    And in this particular case, seven weeks from the election is not very long to identify, select and establish your candidates!

  • GoldenFleece

    I just can’t see NI21 lasting long after the Euro election.

    They might have had a chance if they solidified a political ethos (centre-right, centre-left, something), but they are just another big tent party who’s members range from social democrat to Thatcherite conservative.

    They are in essence Alliance 2.0 only not neutral on the union and Alliance do politics so much better than they do.

    It is also becoming more and more clear NI21 is just a vehicle for Basil’s ego and career, look at FSB hustings yesterday, it was a joke. I am beginning to see why the NI Conservatives didn’t want Basil McCrea anywhere near the leadership.

    They are clearly not getting the support or the MONEY that they thought they would be getting. NI21 trying to pressure FG to help them get European funding for a Euro Campaign.

    I think NI21 is destined to end up on the dumping ground like so many other past parties. It’s sad because most of the membership are well meaning, but so so politically naïve.

  • DC

    It’s sad because most of the membership are well meaning, but so so politically naïve.

    That’s what the Alliance party is built on.

    There’s no better example of the output or outworking of such a party than the union flag decision, so well meaning but so so utterly wasteful and counter productive in the circumstances.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I don’t think most Alliance supporters are politically naive at all these days, DC. The naive people are those who ignore, as you do, the facts and the background around designated days not least the fact that unionists were quite happy with it in the past and changed their position in December 2012 in an attempt to win votes by exploiting sectarian tensions.

    As one of those naive Alliance supporters I would be having serious difficulties if the party had voted for 365-day flegs, because my west-Brit tendencies simply find tribal belligerence to be, well, fundamentally un-British, and my Northern Ireland tendencies know that erecting flags needlessly everywhere does not unite communities. Had Alliance voted to retain the flag the party would have seen a serious internal split.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I see a lot of naivety going around. While on one level the politics of the DUP, TUV and UUP of late are cynical and nihilistic, they have no qualms about exploiting the naivety of some people by trying to suggest that all of the perceived setbacks to unionism can be reversed by voting in more unionist candidates; or going further and actively dismissing the facts of demographic change recorded in the 2011 census.

  • DC

    Comrade that to me reads like party before country, you guys had your policy and regardless of the flag motion being sectarianised and the political environment not conducive to change, Alliance thumbed theirs noses and said well we must go ahead because we have our policy. Never mind bad timing or political environment?

    Of course, if you were a serious regional party and if you had people that trusted you west of the Bann, such constituents and reps would have reported back saying that in their councils the union flag never flies. What looks excessive to Alliance in Belfast might not have looked so excessive if it was more tune with how things are done regionally – if Alliance were more in tune it might have held off to try and get designated days implemented regionally using Belfast as a bargaining tool for the greater good.

    It is probably not lost on some why Alliance types might well think 365 days is excessive because it has been very very lucky to have been afforded the opportunity to set up and grow and be endorsed in loyalist unionist areas; wherein the union flag and its appearance might now be starting to bore Alliancers, you guys in these areas have seen enough of it – well fair enough. Familiarity breeds contempt is it? Good. So be it. That can change.

    In the end it was Alliance party dogma over robust regional governance, which backfired politically on the good relations front, electorally maybe and indeed financially due to policing costs associated with changing the flag policy in the manner that it was seen to be changed.

    I will not hold my breath for Alliance to fess up to this fact, Alliance will naturally blame others, hell even the deputy diverts blame, when pressed hard, on to her Belfast city councillors, than take the heat herself, despite her being in a leadership position. Alliance, just like you do Comrade, will quickly blame others whilst overlooking its own role in the whole sorry saga – remember it was meant to be about creating good relations after all.

    Yes, that was supposed to be the driver of change from an Alliance point of view, I assume. But it didn’t work out and it’s now time to blame everyone else for being too emotionally attached and too hot under the collar over a flag.

    Be more like Alliance and get with the times, be into your job and the status that that gives you in society and materialism, but certainly not country oh no. I mean please how could any one get worked up over a flag!? Hang on wasn’t there a conflict not that long ago here and peace process? Oh yeah that’s right!

  • Comrade Stalin

    It is not a matter of party before country. At the end of a day people support a party because of its values. If it abandons those values, as it would have done had it voted to retain 365 day flag flying, it is impossible to continue supporting it. This is true of any party.

    I didn’t bother to read the rest of your contribution. We’ve dealt with all these arguments before and I don’t want to bore people by retreading them yet again.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Not really. Alliance initially won seats in Derry, Newry and Fermanagh – where it rarely even contests now.

    But the situation in 1970-73 was entirely different from now.

    Perhaps Alliance failed to deal with its 74 problem, The a Hunger Strikes.

  • FuturePhysicist

    I mean pressure from republicanism in both directions as well as the impact of Internment and the Hunger Strikes in the border region.