New pro-Union party NI21’s decision to erect election billboards in Irish is not a publicity stunt, leader Basil McCrea has said.
The Lagan Valley MLA said that the posters — which urge people to vote for European election candidate Tina McKenzie — were “symbolic of what we’re trying to achieve”.
The new party has attempted to set out a vision which is pro-Union but without the trappings of cultural unionism, something it believes could see non-Protestant voters lend it support.
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme, Mr McCrea admitted that the posters were aimed at “getting people talking”, but insisted that it was not a gimmick.
He said that five of the party’s 30 large posters in Belfast are in Irish.
“One of the problems with the Irish language — and indeed, with a whole lot of things in our society — is that it’s become deeply politicised. We split on sport, we split on language, we split on almost everything and we want to try and unite people,” he said.
“It was the Presbyterians who actually saved the Irish language...and if we really want to build a common future, we do have to accept that we have a common heritage. This is just one small step in the way of saying to people ‘let’s celebrate the diversity in our society and move forward’.”
He said that there was a need to “send signals” that Northern Ireland was better if it was more united and added: “It’s one of the reasons that we chose Tina McKenzie as our European candidate — that too is a signal...that says ‘look, we’ve moved on...’.”
Late decisions on candidates
Despite its two key figures, Basil McCrea and John McCallister, having been part of the UCUNF late candidate selection debacle in 2010, NI21 has decided to choose its candidates even later than the UUP-Tory link.
A detailed UUP report into that ultimately failed experiment with the Conservative Party concluded that late candidate selection was a key issue which cost it votes.
However, NI21 will not officially name its council candidates — although the names of some were leaked to this newspaper last week — until tomorrow, less than a month before the council elections.
Most of the council candidates are expected to be in the east of Northern Ireland.
Tomorrow the party will also set out its “objectives for local government”.