Elections are over, many have voted in Northern Ireland to see a better future within the EU and their local councils, but something lurks in the waters of Northern Ireland’s newest political party. For those unaware, allow me to enlighten you, in June 2013, a new political party was formed under UUP (Ulster Unionist Party) breakaways Basil McCrea and John McCalister. This party was to promote the idea of fresh politics using the motto ‘aspire to better,’ and would eventually become a new political movement amongst middle ground and previous non-voters, this party was duly called NI21 because they had a vision of bringing Northern Ireland into the twenty-first century.

Upon my admission to university, I was excited at the prospect of a new party, one that would become an alternative to unionists, like myself, who found hope in the birth of a new unionist party, in particular their ideals of working with both nationalist and unionist communities to change the status quo within Stormont and shake things up. Over the past 72 hours however, these hopes for many voters have become shattered and the very name of the party has been tainted only several days before the elections.

The first issue many found with the party and indeed one that certain members forecast from the very beginning, was that party policy was more of a bureaucracy than a democracy. There have been complaints of the executive passing policy without consulting members within the party and NI21’s former communications officer John Rainey, commented that this was because of Basil’s ego getting in the way of the party. Elements of secrecy were certainly at work here and many members in the party felt that they were being kept in the dark when it came to policy making.

Recently, there was a hasty decision by the NI21 executive to redesignate themselves from being a Unionist party in Stormont to ‘Other.’ This decision was taken 48 hours before the polls opened and many people were not informed of this decision, even the party’s deputy leader John McCalister called this a ‘crazy’ decision. Under regulation in Stormont however, once a party has designated themselves under the three options of Nationalist / Unionist / Other, they cannot redesignate for that period in the assembly (4 years). In other words, even though the party executive came out with this decision, realistically, they could not have redesignated officially until 2016 at the beginning of the assembly term. Was this a publicity stunt? What was their reasoning behind this? Why were members of the party not informed?

The reasoning behind this decision came from the party leader, Basil McCrea’s remarks, regarding the party’s official stance on the state of the union: ‘I have been on the doorsteps and we have listened to the people, the thought of being a unionist party tears people away from voting and we want to work for both communities, that’s why we are redesignating.’ The issue with this statement is that there has been almost unanimous agreement within the party that this issue was not brought up among the electorate. Secondly, NI21 was formed as a Unionist party, it is a splinter group from the UUP and people realized that when they saw the party. Thirdly, they came out with a brash statement which was rather telling of their opinion  on those who classify as Unionists and Nationalists and state, I quote: ‘We have redesignated because we reject the labels of the twentieth century.’  The irony is so delicious here it’s almost unfathomable, the party is still designated as Unionist until 2016 and I think that we should be respectful towards those who classify themselves as either Unionist or Nationalist. They also state in their manifesto that they are a ‘Pro-Union’ party, the two terms of pro-union and unionist are not mutually exclusive, they are pretty much one and the same, people knew they were a unionist party to begin with so why would they change?

More shake-ups were to come just several hours before the polls closed, at approximately 21:15 pm on the 22nd of May, Tina McKenzie, the European Candidate of NI21, resigned from the executive alongside their treasurer Tony McMahon and she: ‘[wished] John and Basil all the best in resolving differences, I have resigned from the executive but I still fully support NI21.’ She also stated that if elected: ‘If elected, I will work for the people, not for those that play dirty politics.’ The executive now consists of Basil, John and another anonymous person yet to be named and given the past 48-hour feud, one of the two (Basil and John), will have to go. On BBC’s ‘The View,’ John McCalister stated that: ‘I don’t think I can ever work as deputy leader again with Basil as leader within the party.’ This has ultimately led to their current standing and has split the party in two over who to support. A party, trying to make a change from the polarization of politics, ultimately polarized itself and led to its own decimation.

In the midst of all this, even more serious allegations have been raised regarding their leader which I cannot post for legal reasons and if everything reaches melting point, it could very well be the end of NI21 unless some serious changes are made. It’s a shame really, having known some of the candidates and those within their Youth Wing at QUB, I do feel for those who are in this pitfall on who to support and those who want to build a better future. Regardless of their current disjointed leadership, credit given where credit is due. I recall an exam question in AS Politics regarding the future of small parties within Northern Ireland and their limited success, whatever the future may hold for NI21, political students will be rejoicing  all over for years to come for providing an example of an interesting experiment in forming a new party.


References:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04403dh – The View
http://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/regional/ni21-implodes-amid-allegations-against-basil-mccrea-1-6077066

 http://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/regional/comment-ni21-party-s-actions-suggest-vast-internal-problems-1-6074384
http://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/regional/mccrea-leadership-chaotic-ni21-s-former-party-secretary-1-6074376
http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/elections/ni21-leaderships-very-public-bustup-leaves-party-in-chaos-as-polls-open-on-election-day-30294605.html