A new political party was launched in Northern Ireland on Thursday night by two former Ulster Unionists who pledged an attempt to set up an official Opposition at the Stormont Assembly.
MLAs Basil McCrea and John McCallister are to head up NI21 (Northern Ireland 21st Century), a pro-union party which they hope will get the backing of Protestants and Catholics disillusioned with mainstream parties that have seats at Parliament Buildings in Belfast.
They said the name was chosen to build on a modernising Northern Ireland identity, and offer voters an opportunity to support a party which they claim is not tied to the baggage of the 20th century legacy and conflict.
Mr McCrea, 53, the party leader, and Mr McCallister, 41, his deputy, left the struggling Ulster Unionist Party after leader Mike Nesbitt’s decision to endorse a unionist unity candidate in last February’s Mid-Ulster by-election, won comfortably by Sinn Fein.
Both had earlier lost out in separate leadership contests. Mr McCallister was once Mr Nesbitt’s deputy.
The party chairwoman is Tina McKenzie, a south Belfast businesswoman who introduced the first of the founding members at tonight’s launch at the Metropolitan Arts Centre, Belfast.
The powersharing executive at Stormont is a coalition of five parties, but with First Minister Peter Robinson’s Democratic Unionists and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness’s Sinn Fein effectively controlling the decision-making process.
Apart from a handful of single-seat parties, there is no official opposition, but the new party confirmed tonight it is planning to bring forward a private member’s bill for Opposition, claiming it is determined to represent all sections of the community.
Mr McCrea and Mr McCallister, a farmer, belonged to the liberal wing of the Ulster Unionist Party, and with the non-sectarian Alliance Party well established, they face a major challenge to grow the numbers to develop their brand of politics.
A statement said: “To many families in our community, the word ‘Unionist’ has negative connotations. Not everyone who supports Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK can easily associate with the main Unionist parties or all that is associated with Unionist culture.
“Our party brings a fresh approach to politics in Northern Ireland, allowing people to celebrate their diversity and culture, celebrate their Irish or British heritage, while comfortably remaining committed to Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom.”