Platform for Change launched in February 2010 to push “a positive political agenda which does not endlessly replay arguments linked to Northern Ireland’s ‘troubles’”. It wanted politics and politicians to serve the entire community and not to stymie progress and development.
… the politics of recent years has too often looked backwards rather than forwards, inwards rather than outwards to the wider world. This makes no sense to a new generation of voters.
In a blog post reflecting on the launch back in 2010 I said:
The difficulty with Platform for Change is that at present it looks like a middle class revolution, an angry Alliance Party. Or maybe its liberal unionists with a heart for social justice mixing with nationalists that prefer practising collaboration rather than marching towards unity?
The platform’s key hurdle is to grow beyond the cucumber sandwich-eating brigade … and reach out to real people in cities, towns, villages, estates and farms across Northern Ireland, while at the same time pushing their agenda firmly into the hands of the current political gene pool.
The group had the choice of forming a political party and rejected it. At one election they contemplated canvassing doors – presumably to encourage voters to think about the policies of the parties they were going to vote for – but chose not to. Mass action reverted back to organising smaller conversations and generating well thought out submissions to consultations, particularly around electoral and institutional reform, reconciliation and dealing with the past.
Platform for Change was at its strongest when it shone a spotlight on consensus between parties. Their February 2013 Flags – Can we now have a sensible debate? event was probably their most timely and constructive intervention in Belfast politics with an unwieldy-yet-illuminating panel of nine politicians, for once covering all the major parties (DUP and Sinn Fein councillors attended) and many of the minor ones operating in the Belfast.
There was an atmosphere of listening in the room. Unlike some other community political Q&A events, whenever the self-identified protesters made their points, they sat down and listened to the answers, rather than immediately storming out of the room.
Writing up November’s event on political inertia I described it as “Platform for Change’s latest – and perhaps last – panel”.
In a brief post on their website, Platform for Change reflect on their accomplishments:
… successfully placing a number of items on the political agenda–notably the need for structural reforms of the Northern Ireland governance arrangements to make them fit for purpose–but failing to realign the ‘centre ground’ of politics in the region in the way hoped. The site remains opens because the documents addressing the issues raised remain of interest.
In the end Platform for Change mastered “platform” but the inertia they so wanted to overcome frustrated any “change”. Its softly, softly approach generated some light but practically no heat.
The initial desire to facilitate the generation of shared policies that multiple parties could pursue and promote around topics like education, sustainable development, intercultural dialogue and community relations was not realised. In general, the hustings attracted an audience of fellow liberals with a passion for social justice rather than the initial intent to engage “with young people, voters and non-voters to bring about change”.
The SDLP, UUP and Alliance will continue to see no value in sharing manifesto policies whenever they are collectively outvoted and outmanoeuvred by the two largest parties. Many Platform for Change stalwarts will remain embedded in smaller parties (Greens, Labour, Conservatives, and others). Informal networks will continue to assist cross-party discussions.
If Northern needed “a positive political agenda which does not endlessly replay arguments linked to Northern Ireland’s ‘troubles’” back in 2010, surely it needs it even more as 2014 draws to a close?
This weekend, NI21 will hold an AGM in The MAC, 18 months to the day since their launch on 6 June 2013 in the same venue. Its vision of “fresh politics” turned stale in light of serious allegations made against its leader (still being investigated by the NI Assembly Commissioner for Standards and not expected to report until February or March 2015 at the earliest), designation-switching, personality clashes, and ultimately the pressing of the self-destruct button days before the May 2014 polls.
After six months of radio silence (its website is no longer maintained and it’s possible no one left in the party has the password for their twitter account), it remains to be seen whether Saturday’s AGM is anything more than an administrative nicety to elect a party Executive and approve the new constitution and policies which will allow NI21 to continue to exist as a brand in hibernation mode (with the notable exception of their elected shadow councillor Johnny McCarthy).
Platform for Change’s death – and NI21’s melancholy decay – both reflect the difficulty facing progressive middle-ground politics in Northern Ireland. Election after election, voters reward the extremes (or at least extreme behaviour in the run up to elections).