This morning I met NI21’s newly minted European candidate, Tina McKenzie in the Europa Hotel for one of her first interviews as the party candidate. Bouncing in and full of passion we spoke for just over twenty minutes as she regaled me with her ideas and plans for the campaign to come.
I know the Sluggerverse has been critical of Tina and NI21 for a lack of policies in regards to Europe, so, this is what I wanted to primarily focus on during the interview. But, I began by asking her why she was running for Europe? McKenzie told me that she felt it was important that for someone like her from a working class background, who had achieved a lot in business that it was important for her to give something back to Northern Ireland.
I moved on to question her about NI21’s ‘fresh politics’ mantra and its relevance to Europe. Surely this message is a bit redundant when it comes to the European Parliament?
Not at all and in fact I might be so bold to say that if you’re talking fresh politics to our old media then they may not get what it is that we are talking about and I don’t mean get it in an intellectual way but actually feel it and for change you have got to feel it…so don’t be surprised when people come along and just criticise it and say it’ll never work…if all of the old media were saying this is great, I would be quite worried that this is not going to work.
What about our membership of the European Union? Tina reiterated her support for continuing our membership and believes that the current proposal to have an in/out referendum is not the best negotiating tactic for the UK to take. She believed that while the European Union may not need the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland really needs Europe for things like peace funding.
I was curious to know then if pulling out of the European Union was such an economically dangerous thing to do would our future not be better place with the Irish Republic, who is more favourable to Europe?
Absolutely not…actually the United Kingdom is the 5th largest economy in the world; we want to be part of that.
I pressed her again would we not following the logic through be better off in secure economic entity within Europe? McKenzie gave me a definitive no, arguing that she gets frustrated by the abstentionist attitude of Sinn Fein, who in her opinion, should be at Westminster working on behalf of Northern Ireland. McKenzie believes that it does not make sense for us to embark on a path to unity if we leave the European Union as it does not make economic or political sense to do so.
Outside of constitutional issues, Tina told me that the party has not yet decided what group within the European Parliament that NI21 would sit with but that we could expect an announcement within the next week or so.
Down to brass tacks, I was keen to know her views on some issues that directly impact our way of life. I began with the Working Time Directive and would she support changes to it? Tina told me of her experience in lobbying the British government on behalf of the REC in getting changes to the initial directive which ended up allowing the UK some flexibility in allowing certain sections of the work force to opt out from the directive. For Tina, flexibility is part and parcel of a dynamic economy and the changes that she advocated for and that were subsequently achieved, allowed the United Kingdom to achieve that that objective.
Tina is also a strong supporter of the Common Agricultural Policy believing that its time has not passed. She believes that the policy goes beyond farmers, as it keeps our countryside organised, maintaining conservation efforts and supports other sectors of agriculture.
Moving onto more controversial issues, I asked Tina about abortion;
Our view is that a woman has the right to decide.
She told me that we need to move away from a debate that pins abortion as either right or wrong and that we have to take into account the variety of circumstances that women have to go through. But, she does believe that fathers do have a role to play in the decision too. Does she go as far to suggest the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act? No, she believes that the act is completely out of date and that fundamentally we have to have the abortion debate again.
I was curious as to where she believed that the current our MEPs are falling down. Being generous, Tina said that she believed that all three of our MEPs have skill sets but are being held back by their parties. She despairs at the fact that there is not enough co-operation between Diane Dodds and Martina Anderson and that this is having a detrimental impact on the amount of funds that are being allocated to Northern Ireland.
On how the party would do at the upcoming election, she founded almost defeatist telling that if she thought about that she ‘would not have entered the race, lets fact it.’ But, she believes that NI21 has the wind at its back and that perhaps it might not be at this election but at some point in the future the party will garner much more support. One thing is clear, Tina does intend on playing the underdog role for the rest of the campaign as she spoke about the lack of resources that the party has and its smaller size compared to other parties.
Overall, Tina in person is a very hard person not to like, full of passion and energy. Whether she can translate that ability into hard votes is another question. The party clearly made a punt that waiting until now will have next to no difference with the electorate.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs