By attracting 250 delegates to the Europa Hotel, NI21 had a successful first conference but it is not yet entirely clear what the party stands for.
Most of those attending appeared to be new to any political party. Members were enthusiastic and, while serious about being organised, did not take themselves too seriously. Speeches were punctuated with frequent laughs. The branding was original and well-presented.
Basil McCrea’s speech, though, was meandering. In keeping with his maverick image, he announced that he would not stick to the script.
He claimed that the other parties had “squandered” the opportunities in the Good Friday Agreement. McCrea noted that modern relationships were “constantly evolving” with referring to any limits on that evolution. Polygamy and beauty contests were not mentioned.
The party takes a more liberal line on same-sex marriage than the Alliance Party. McCrea and McCallister had backed a Sinn Féin motion in favour of the concept in April. Most Alliance MLAs abstained or voted against the motion as they wanted more safeguards for churches.
NI21’s vision of a “better Northern Ireland regardless of … background or cultural identity” is virtually identical to that of Alliance, although it says that Alliance has compromised by going into government. Instead, NI21 sees its niche as being an official opposition. The role is also claimed by the other minor parties but NI21 does have two MLAs and the momentum of a new start.
Some of the policies advocated by McCrea are borrowed from others e.g. living wage (from Labour), regional income tax (from Alliance), pupil premium (from the UUP and Lib Dems). McCrea argues that setting income tax and stamp duty at Stormont would make the Assembly more accountable to voters but his idea is not yet backed up with costings or estimates.
The absence of a view on actual tax rates or indeed welfare reform suggests that much of the party’s platform is a work in progress. This is not surprising as it includes businesspeople and trade unionists alike.
NI21 is clearer on political reform, advocating:
• a Bill to establish an official opposition;
• the renaming of OFMDFM to the Office of the Joint First Ministers;
• electing the Speaker by secret ballot (as happens in Westminster); and
• detaching the Speaker from his or her constituency (to make the post more independent).
A House of Commons committee considered the last proposal in 1939 but dismissed it as “a serious infringement of democratic principles” as the Speaker would effectively have no constituents and no electoral opponents.
Publicly accepting the joint nature of the First and deputy First ministers, though, would be in line with the Good Friday Agreement and deal with the perception – among unionists – that Sinn Féin would have more power if Martin McGuinness became First Minister.
While stating his belief in a free press, McCrea was critical of the media reporting the anniversaries of the Shankill and Greysteel attacks and the Maze escape all in one week. This appeared naïve as journalists cannot ignore significant news stories which happen to coincide.
John McCallister broke new ground by starting his speech in Irish, following the Queen’s example in Dublin. He despaired at “tribal politics” but also acknowledged that the party faced an “uphill struggle.” The electorate, he said, was cynical because it could not change its government and he challenged other parties to back the Opposition Bill.
McCallister had announced his intention to publish such a Bill on 20 November last year, when he was still a UUP member. This is still in its drafting stages. He also called for Assembly committees to be free from the party whip and for the appointment of an opposition MLA as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. Both are accepted standards in Westminster.
As the guest speaker, Irish Minister of State Brian Hayes reiterated his long-standing interest in Northern Ireland and outlined his economic views in more detail than either MLA. “The constitutional issue is resolved for this generation,” he affirmed and “practical politics must be allowed to fill the vacuum” between North and South.
Hayes said that there had been “too much navel-gazing” by politicians in Dublin and Belfast when a UK withdrawal from the EU would have serious consequences for the whole island. Local leaders in agriculture and business needed to consider how they could play a part in the British debate. Northern Ireland’s voice had been “noticeably absent” so far.
The province’s future was “ultimately dependent on getting the economy moving and paying your way within the UK.” Agri-food, energy, tourism and higher education stood out as growth sectors and Hayes was willing to consider fracking if it were carried out safely.
One observer described the conference as “a bit of a vanity trip” and it’s noteworthy that the party’s YouTube feed is still named after Basil McCrea. Another pointed to the youth of most members and saw the party as a good way to get more young people interested in politics, which in itself is a worthy goal.
Alliance put up one of its newest councillors, Gavin Norris, to respond to NI21. “Despite much rhetoric, NI21 seem to have very little substance,” he commented, adding that forming another unionist party was in itself “old politics”. Alliance also resents being described as part of the “tribal furniture” when its members regularly oppose sectarianism.
Conservative spokesman Trevor Ringland said that devolving income tax was “certainly not a practical proposal in the short term” and would alarm many voters. The real problem, in his view, was that the Executive was failing to spend its current large budget properly.
The Tories view NI21 as a social democratic party and, in Labour’s absence from elected politics, are hoping that this will encourage a left-right political debate in Northern Ireland. They had previously hoped to attract John McCallister, who stood as an Ulster Conservative and Unionist candidate in the 2010 general election.
NI21’s populist message may resonate with the 45 per cent of the electorate who did not vote in 2011. However, even in the first Assembly poll, 31 per cent of the electorate did not turn out. This appears to limit the demographic of ‘non-voters who may vote’ to 14 per cent.
Four out of five Alliance voters live in the greater Belfast area. This indicates that NI21 is likely to be concentrated in the same region.
The two MLAs had small support bases last time round – 4,409 first preferences for McCallister and 5,771 for McCrea – and, in both cases, many of those voters were traditional Ulster Unionists. If the party had polled 4.7 per cent – its Belfast Telegraph poll share – in the last Assembly election, it would have gained around 31,000 votes.