May 14, 2013

Prelaunch Meeting of NI21 (May 14 2013)

On May 14 2013 a private gathering was arranged at the Malone Lodge hotel where people were invited to listen to and then engage in dialogue with John McCallister and Basil McCrea about their new party, at that stage un-named but now known as NI21.

John McCallister took to the lectern and kicked off the proceedings. He began [the below will not be letter perfect as I transcribed the dialogue onto my phone as the evening progressed. I should also say that any emphases are my own]:
"Relationships in Assembly are significantly worse today than in 1998. Where have the 1998 voting levels gone to 15 years on? Where are we? We now have the 'United Community' shared future document, but sadly we're further away from that goal than ever. 
Basil and I resigned because this is not the right way to do business: the endless quest and belief that unionist unity is the way forward - even though every election shows that unionist unity doesn't work. The "them'ens will get it" type of politics - that's what drives politics in Northern Ireland. 
That's the politics of fear. We need to replace it with politics of hope."
I got lost a bit but John talked about how in Northern Ireland we've become a nation of box tickers. He also said that the unionist forum is a "dead end". On explaining his decision to resign from the UUP he said:
"It would be easier to sit down and worry about potholes; but I want something better. I want to see in the problems we've had over the past 15 years tackled. I want to beat youth unemployment and to build a fairer society with opportunity for all. Not the maintenance of the sectarian divide that drives politics." 
And the UK is not only issue that defines our politics. We need to change Stormont and create an opposition. 
Very shortly we will have people voting who weren't born in 1998. Therefore we need post-peace process politics. Normal politics.We will come up with alternatives and give everyone a choice at the election. At the moment we can't get rid of government and that is huge deficit. But scrutiny and challenge is a key mechanism. And that's how we will change politics. 
It's not just us but everyone in this room. It's about your friends and the disengaged. People in the street keep congratulating us."
My coverage got very watered down towards the end there but hopefully you can make something of it.

Basil then took to the stage and began by heaping John with praise, saying that John McCallister is Northern Ireland's greatest asset - someone who looks at things with humor. He then said:
"There are challenging things that need to be put out there. We need proper mature conversation. Peter Higgs of Higgs-Boson was asked what is it like to be proven right - he said, "nice even if it took 48 years". Hopefully we won't have to wait that long. It takes 10,000 people to prove me right. But it doesn't take that many to prove something wrong. 
It's time for society to come forward and say something is not right. We need debate.
John retired from the UUP first but even before that we had discussed things and had said no to unionist unity. Our politics was completely different from other unionist benches.

But since then we haven't been able to get 50ft down the Lisburn road without people saying how courageous the move has been. Though in many instances the second paragraph would be said in conspiratorial tones: 
"I'm not normally a voter for your side. I'm a catholic." 
Our issue in Northern Ireland when talking about future is always where do you sit on the union. People are saying to us, "We know that things aren't bad in Dublin but couldn't you be neutral?" John and I, we absolutely respect people's cultural identity - but no. There's a benefit for devolved administration. But we want to embrace and respect other identities."
 This next bit is very important. This hasn't been covered much by mainstream reporting and commentary:
"What we'd like to do is build a northern Irish identity; something we can all aspire to." 
Basil continued:
As John McCallister said: we need something better. We're better than what we're getting. When we get visitors from overseas we take them to the same place.  
Why can't we say Northern Irish? 
There's reasons for this. If we don't build a better NI we risk going back to 1970s. We're already seeing it in the flags unrest, the rise of dissidents and in the flat economy.
Whole range of work that we might go forward and do.
Basil then took a tangent and played the video below. A video produced by Michael O'Hara (@jmohara)
who now lives in Boston, America.

"I spoke spoke with Michael O'Hara in Boston about the video you've just seen and how he created it. Well when we launch we will show what is best in our country. 
The people of NI are exceptional but we need proper political leadership. 
We've been asked some difficult questions. Like: are you going to fail? But you need to take the risks. When it comes to risks we are fully aware of the electoral challenge out there. But we will say to the people that they have to get out there. If they want something new they have to get out there. 
I spoke to non traditional voters and our challenge is to represent you. There are other people we want to talk to. "Small u unionists", people who do not need to wrap themselves in a flag to show they are a bigger person. 
And let me say categorically we will not have flags in our literature. It has wrecked the last 15 years. I don't want to see those flags in my streets because they are intimidatory. This is not defending anything or showing respect. The key thing is respect. 
The final thing is I'm struck by the opportunity that Northern Ireland presents. The United Community document and process - there are issues that people do through lip service. 
They say that they want integrated education. Tolerant in Northern Ireland terms is, you let me do what I want to do, but on my terms. We need generosity of spirit. It works both ways. 
We want people to enjoy GAA; Irish dancing if that's what they like. We also think if people want to parade in peaceful way that's fine. 
Let's build society with mutual respect. 
One more thing: we're keen to stress that politics of identity is not core point.  
The biggest most challenging, most awkward thing we can talk of is a border poll. Orange v green etc.; what that does is to de-stabilise everything. It's destructive and discouraging. We have many different identities. We want people to express their opinion without fear; for we are a party that respects the GFA. 
And we will make argument that we should remain in UK. There is a lot of support for this. We will set about creating a better Northern Ireland. That's what matters. 
London is up to its eyes. As is Dublin. It's just us. People of NI need a way of sorting things out for ourselves. A lot of people support this. People who say we will fail are wrong. We will build a future that it rooted in the future; one that will mature into 21st C. 
When we release the party name you will see what we mean."
John McCallister took to the floor to speak:
"One thing to add on Northern Irish identity: I used it at event at county Louth. We need to move away from the idea that if there rioting on the streets it doesn't matter because it's on the other side. 
It should matter to everyone.

It is the politics. A benign form of apartheid. The politics off "them versus us". When it comes to the question of who will top poll in European election, people don't actually care about Europe, it just turns into a border poll. We need issue-based politics. The current politicians show leadership by simply building a bigger flag.
I'm putting in a Private Member's bill that will attempt to legislate to bring in an official opposition. On question we can all agree on is that sectarianism is enshrined in law into Northern Ireland system.

But there's practical issues we will have to confront. Once we become a party we have two members and will go to sixth in the speaker list."
Back to Basil:
"We can change things. You give me a mandate, you watch what we do. 
Frankly I'm amazed by some of the talent in NI. We do believe whether you're male or female black or white, catholic or protestant we want you to be part of our party. We're disappointed with the lack of pride. And look at the last episode of view - it devolved into a bickering match. Have you any self respect!? The new great buzz word: "so what!?" 
We're going to talk about the issues; whether its equal marriage, the economy or youth unemployment."

Basil then moved on to taking questions from the floor:

Q: What differentiates you from the Alliance Party. Basil said two things:
"One, we believe in and are committed to an opposition. We will not take ministerial seats unless we become First Minister. Democracy is more important than that. 
Second, sitting on the fence doesn't cut it. Fudging it will not do it."

Q: How do you see your party reflecting our growing diversity?
"It is about embracing difference. The word people use too often is tolerate - people think you're doing a great thing. We need to celebrate and not just put up with. That's what we haven't been doing."

Q: G8?

Q: What are you top 3 issues? In this order Basil responded:
1. Youth unemployment
2. Educational underachievement
3. Economy built around science and tech

Q: I'm from west Belfast, how are you going to attract young people who will vote Sinn Fein by default?
"Firstly, we are going to stand a candidate in west Belfast. We think there is a vote out there. This isn't just tokenism.

How to engage with these young people: get them an issue. We will let young people talk issues."

Q: You're going to be labelled as a unionist party (open statement).
"We talked through this. We cannot get away from the issue that economically we're better placed in UK. Maybe it will change but for now we are best placed.

Border polls are not helpful. We need stability. We will not have the word unionist in our party name. We're unionist in our future outlook, only because it is closest to where we are.
But John is putting in legislation that will remove unionism and nationalism from wording in government papers and other such.

We recognise that unionist has been debased by certain people. Tolerance of Carson is different from those today.

Don't put a label on us, but if you do, we're a different unionist. We want to build a party where the good people of Northern Ireland can come together for Northern Ireland."
Q: Music to my ears - what I've been longing to hear. We need an ideology not just a pressure group. I'm in west Belfast and love it. In response to the statement on the need for ideology, Basil said:
"Here's what we stand for Northern Ireland anchored in the 21st and maturing into the coming century. Everyone else is stuck in the past. The ideology that we have is NI in the 21st century, confident."
Q: Where are you on EU and corporation tax? John responds:
"On corporation tax: we're broadly in support of devo max; but the current Assembly isn't up to it at the minute. The important thing is to start to move to left/right politics.

I receive a small payment every Christmas, but seriously: the big challenger is the image that it gets that it interferes with everything in our lives. We are and will see a two speed Europe evolving. 
But we need to remember where we are on the business side of things: 70% investment comes from the public sector and 3/4s of foreign direct investment has come from the Game of Thrones."
Q: alliance party attempted to be opposition - why you more effective?

Q: LBGT - I haven't seen eye to eye with traditional unionism. How dedicated are you to this party?

This isn't to be a quick fix. But this doesn't mean you can't be a very effective opposition. If assembly won't listen then make it in public.

John and I both voted - only unionist (basil) to stand for same sex marriage.

Central tenet for this party is individuals. I live in a democracy and this is the way I want to live my life.

If you want a democracy it's about individuals - therefore a diversity of issues.

Flags, diss and economy has shown that politics does matter.

Q: power base at local government.

I have to manage ourselves carefully.

We have young people here tonight. We will do what we can with proper rational analysis of

Q: gay? David Mcnarry: I don't do gay.

The real test of any democracy is how we deal with minorities.

Whether old, disability.

"I will fight for individuals. I abhor bullies"


John and I have burnt our boats.

John is the bravest politician I know. He stood up in my and his election campaign that I wish I had said.

Some people think he is flippant but he has a backbone of steel.

The people of Northern Ireland of fed up to the back teeth. We can catch a wave and gain momentum.

Q: where on spectrum?

There's a whole range of things. Listen there is policy to work out. Principles are we for the individual, regardless of creed. We are for education to compete in challenging environment. We are for selection. How you do it; that is a different matter. One size does not fit all. We need more diversity. Neither grammar schools or secondary moderns are providing us with right skills for the world

LvR - it doesn't matter because its decided by London. Best we can do on things like welfare is to do rough edge. But ultimately the best way to deal with welfare is to spur jobs.

We aspire for the better of the people of northern Ireland and we will work

We will announce at launch the 3 key policies and note LvR - big government or rights of individual?

Socially liberal, financially conservative

Q: equality - women etc.?

The proof of the pudding with this party will be with the candidates.

Q: Deirdre nelson - ex DUP councillor ---

If we want women to be involved in politics we need children with us.

- how do you get older people?

- most women given change will step up to the plate

The reason we are all here tonight is to build something better. Yes we're two men in a suit but please do not stereotype us.

We do need to change the way were doing politics. SF/DUP taking us through the motions and others are trying to drag us into past.

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