Founders of new ‘centrist and pro-union’ party in North to target non-voters
Ex-UUP members McCrea and McCallister to stand candidates in EU and local polls
NI21 founder Basil McCrea said the party’s sights were set on outstripping the strength of the centrist Alliance Party, which has eight Stormont seats, and the UUP, which has 13. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Founders of NI21 Basil McCrea and John McCallister have described the new party as broad church, pro-union, “radical” and “centrist” at its inaugural conference.
They told the gathering the party was determined to rival the Alliance and Ulster Unionist parties in terms of strength at the Stormont Assembly.
NI21, which has attracted members from both Protestant and Catholic traditions, is also seeking to persuade many of the 45 per cent of people in Northern Ireland who do not vote to support the party.
“There is clearly something fundamentally wrong with our political system when almost half of people here don’t vote,” party leader Mr McCrea told those assembled in the Europa Hotel, Belfast, on Saturday. About 250 people attended the forum.
The party, in its first big electoral test, is to stand candidates in next May’s European and local elections. Its European candidate has not been named but the likeliest nominee at this stage is South Down MLA Mr McCallister, who formed NI21 with Lagan Valley MLA Mr McCrea in June.
Support of 5 per cent
said NI21’s sights were set on outstripping the strength of the centrist Alliance Party, which has eight Stormont seats, and the UUP, which has 13.
He said a Belfast Telegraph poll gave NI21 almost 5 per cent support.
“That is almost the same as the TUV [Traditional Unionist Voice], Ukip and Greens put together and within range of the Alliance party and the UUP. And we are not finished yet,” he said.
On identity Mr McCrea told the conference: “The label I do is Northern Ireland. I am Northern Irish . . . We must build a consensus around making Northern Ireland work.”
He called for the creation of Stormont structures to allow a formal opposition to operate in the Assembly and said the Assembly should have tax-raising powers.
Mr McCrea and Mr McCallister quit the UUP in February in protest at what they viewed as strengthening links between the DUP and UUP.
“The tired old political parties . . . are part of the problem, not part of the solution,” said Mr McCrea in his keynote address. He also called for the scrapping of First Minister and Deputy First Minister titles, to be replaced by the title of joint first minister. “Martin McGuinness is already First Minister in all but name,” he added.
On issues such as “unmarried couples, gay couples, single mothers”, NI21 was “not on a moral crusade”, he said, but was determined “to build a fair and equitable society . . . where all are treated with dignity”.
Mr McCallister said there were good people in Alliance, the SDLP and the UUP, but that “
at the end of the day, the DNA of tribal politics is a part of both the UUP and SDLP”.
The co-founder of NI21 said the party “had to be created” to give voice to the hopes and optimism of the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
“I left the UUP because I became convinced that it was not, and could not be, the means of changing politics in Northern Ireland,” he said.
NI21 was not a party of the Orange or Green or a “cosy” centrist party.
“We are a party of the radical centre. We will not prop up the tribalist status quo,” he said.
Guest speaker, Fine Gael Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Brian Hayes said that “the constitutional issue is resolved for this generation despite what Mr [Gerry] Adams might say”.
“That prism, which dominated our debates to the exclusion of all others, has been well and truly removed. Now it is time to reach a new accommodation and a new understanding between both parts of this island.
“Practical politics must be allowed fill the vacuum. Doing things together that make a difference to ordinary people must become the new reality.”