As the DUP and UUP move closer, Northern Ireland needs a new pro-Union party, write BASIL McCREA and JOHN McCALLISTER
IT is time for a confident, generous, progressive pro-Union party to step forward and build support for a modern Northern Ireland. At a time when a recent opinion poll shows clearly that a significant majority of our citizens across the entire community support the current constitutional position, pro-Union parties should not be leading a retreat into sectarian trenches.
Flags protests, dissident activity, economic austerity and rising unemployment threaten the peace and prosperity which we fought so hard to achieve. The trauma of our past continues to haunt us, old animosities have not been put aside and political leaders struggle to meet the challenges of a rapidly deteriorating situation. Northern Ireland runs the risk of returning to the old ways.
The decision to run a unionist unity candidate in the Mid Ulster by-election will do little to improve the situation. In fact it will make matters worse. It will polarise our communities, increase tension and reinforce the political domination of the DUP and SF. This political monopoly by the big two has not served Northern Ireland well. Self serving, unproductive and ultimately unsustainable, their time in office has been a failure. But where is the alternative? The SDLP, UUP and Alliance are trapped in an executive which robs them of their independence and demands their silence. They are bit players in government who enjoy the trappings of office but lack the authority to do anything. Unless they leave the executive and assert their independence they are doomed. For some it may already be too late.
The decision to run a unionist unity candidate will have far reaching implications throughout Northern Ireland and for years to come. It confirms that there is little to separate the current unionist parties - no matters of principle, no overarching values, no policy differences upon which to fight an election. At every future election a call for a unity candidate will be heard. A diverse pluralist electorate will reject such a one size fits all approach.
Many who would describe themselves as unionist believe in a shared future. Many who would not describe themselves as unionist are happy with a Northern Ireland identity and there are many others who have simply stopped voting because they do not like what the current parties offer.
All of these people need someone to vote for, democracy itself needs a choice, and Northern Ireland needs a new political dynamic. For those reasons and for the many people who despair of the political landscape in a place we like to call home, we have concluded that a new political party is required.
We cannot say yet what the new party will be called for that depends on discussions with the Electoral Commission but we can outline the guiding principles.
l A Northern Ireland party determined to represent all sections of our community.
l A party that is not afraid to speak out.
l A party capable of building a Northern Ireland we can all be proud off.
l An independent party which believes that Northern Ireland’s future is best advanced within the Union.
l A party committed to the values enshrined in the Belfast Agreement and determined to provide a credible alternative to the current political stalemate.
l A party that does not need to wrap itself in a flag, to provide leadership to the people of Northern Ireland.
l A party which believes in individuals as agents of change, where religious persuasion should not define political beliefs and where matters of conscience are best left to the individual.
In setting up a new party, we do not underestimate the challenges. We are aware that many political parties are vying for the attention of the electorate and that they are unlikely to welcome a new entrant. Some will be disappointed that we did not join them given that we are in agreement on a number of significant policy areas.
However, many people are disillusioned with the current political process. A significant number have encouraged us to start a new party. If the existing political parties were the answer this would not be the case.
We believe that the people of Northern Ireland are alarmed by the current political situation but are determined not to return to the past. They want difficult issues confronted and resolved, not swept under the carpet. They want better government, more effective politicians and above all choice.
A key aspect of our platform is the creation of a democratic opposition in the Assembly. We strongly endorse the principles of powersharing enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement but this does not mean that Northern Ireland citizens should be deprived of an effective opposition.
An effective opposition committed to the future of Northern Ireland will not only hold the executive to account but will provide a viable alternative in subsequent elections. Such an arrangement is the corner stone of democracies throughout the world including Westminster and the Dail. We have accepted the challenge to build a new party but we cannot do it on our own.
The unpalatable truth is that politics is too important to be left to the politicians. If the electorate want better politics they will have to become more engaged in the political process. An informed and interested electorate is essential for democracy to prevail and Northern Ireland to prosper.