NI21 has crowd clamouring to hear political vision

The crowd at the launch of the NI21 party

The crowd at the launch of the NI21 party

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Arriving yesterday evening at the Metropolitan Arts Centre, the strangest of sights met my eyes – a crowd of people clamouring to get into a political event.

Usually, as News Letter columnist Alex Kane who was also in attendance quipped to me, people are clamouring to get out of political meetings, not in.

I double-checked with reception and sure enough the crowd around the elevator were waiting to get to the sixth floor to see former Ulster Unionist MLAs Basil McCrea and John McCallister launch their new party NI21.

As 7pm struck and the glamorous PR girls holding back the crowds from the lifts let us go up, the room set aside for the launch quickly filled up.

The crowd, numbering over 150, spilled into a second room as Mr McCallister rose first to speak. As I glanced around the room, unusually for a political event, I barely recognised a single person apart from the other journalists standing with me.

Mr McCrea insisted during his speech that he did not want established politicians, but new, fresh faces for this new party.

Party chairwoman Tina McKenzie said what drove her to get involved was being passionate about Northern Ireland, which was a theme amongst all of the new members who spoke.

She said she simply did not think what the folks on the hill were doing was good enough. She said, as a west Belfast woman, you might not expect to see her standing next to two ex-members of the Ulster Unionist Party, but that she believed in their vision.

But many others were there to support friends or as interested observers.

Independent councillor from Down Cadogen Enright said he was there to support Mr McCallister who he described as an “outstanding politician”. Maria Doran from south Belfast, who rose to prominence in the BBC show, the Young Apprentice, said she was there as an A-level politics student and that she was interested to see how the new party would do.

Many of those who attended said they had not voted before and there were many comments about the fact that almost half of Northern Ireland’s citizens do not vote.

The true test for this bright new idea in Ulster politics can only be at the ballot box – and whether it can inspire even some of that half of the population who don’t vote to come out for them.