New NI party seeks more devolved powers

NI21 is headed by former UUP MLAs Basil McCrea and John McAllister

The NI21 leader Basil McCrea today placed the new party firmly as a broad-church pro-union centrist party that aimed to rival the Alliance and Ulster Unionist Party in terms of strength in the Stormont Assembly.

About 250 delegates are attending the first annual conference of NI21 in the Europa Hotel in Belfast. It was formally established in June this year by former Ulster Unionist Party Assembly members Mr McCrea and John McCallister. They quit the UUP in February in protest at what they viewed as strengthening links between the DUP and UUP.

“The tired old political parties of the last century...are part of the problem, not part of the solution”, the Lagan Valley MLA Mr McCrea told the conference in his keynote leader’s speech.

Mr McCrea quoted from W B Yeats’s famous poem, The Second Coming to explain the central political philosophy of NI21. He rephrased the line about the centre not holding to state to applause, “The centre must hold.”


“There are three parts to our strategy. First we will provide a viable alternative to the parties of the past. Secondly, we must devolve more fiscal powers to the Assembly and finally we must change the political institutions to allow for more effective political leadership,” he added.

NI21, which has attracted members from both the Protestant and Catholic traditions, is also seeking to persuade many of the 45 per cent of people in Northern Ireland who don't vote to support the party. "There is clearly something fundamentally wrong with our political system when almost half of people here don't vote," said Mr McCrea.

NI21 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 candidate at this stage is South Down MLA John McCallister who formed NI21 with Mr McCrea.

Mr McCrea in terms of ambition said NI21’s sights were set on equalling and out-stripping the strength of the Alliance Party which has 8 Stormont seats and the UUP which has 13. He said a recent 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.”

Mr McCrea said rather than First and Deputy First Minister posts there should be an office of Joint First Ministers. “Martin McGuinness is already First Minster in all but name. In one move we will remove one of the most misleading, divisive and sectarian elements of our electoral system allowing members of the public to vote for MLAs on merit rather than a sectarian headcount,” he said.

Mr McCrea again called for the creation of Stormont structures to allow a formal opposition to operate in the Assembly.

He said that modern relationships, family life and attitudes were complex, personal and constantly evolving. He added, “So it is not for us to tell unmarried couples, gay couples, single mothers or kinship carers that their family unit, their lifestyle, their decisions are any less worthy than others. We are not on a moral crusade. Our goal is to build a fair and equitable society, where people can live and work together, where all are treated with dignity.”

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times