NI21 may be a new party, but will face age-old dilemmas

Basil McCrea and John McAllister said their new party would "offer a robust and constructive opposition" at Stormont.
Basil McCrea and John McAllister said their new party would "offer a robust and constructive opposition" at Stormont.

The new party launched on a wave of optimism last night with the promise of “new politics” will need to resolve some age-old political problems if it is to succeed.

With two high-profile MLAs, NI21 has stolen a march on other new parties, such as the NI Conservatives, attempting to break onto Northern Ireland’s crowded political scene.

And with a name, NI21, which has been compared to everything from a road number to a virus before the party was even launched, they have certainly got people talking.

While the NI21 name has attracted derision from some, parties with even odder names – such as the Pirate Party in Germany – have successfully managed to make a virtue of their eccentric brand, tapping into today’s anti-politics sentiment.

Far more important than the name will be a coherent message, something which has bedevilled the party from which Mr McCrea and Mr McCallister have come.

The timing of next year’s elections provides both an opportunity and a potential threat.

The European election will allow one of the party’s two MLAs to run in a PR election where they cannot be accused of splitting the pro-Union vote and do not need to find other candidates.

But the council election likely to be held on the same day will require them to find scores of credible candidates within months; such a hurried process could throw up those with skeletons in the closet or bizarre views, a problem which has beset UKIP in England.

They will also hope that their main rivals – the UUP and the Alliance Party – stumble. In recent months the UUP leader, Mike Nesbitt, has appeared to steady the party’s decline and find several areas where he has differentiated the party from the DUP.

Time will tell whether that is a fresh start or merely another false dawn.

The new party’s leaders are positive, enthusiastic politicians and their rhetoric has clearly inspired some who had been turned off politics to engage with the new party.

But away from the cameras both men will need to do the stultifyingly boring hard graft which lies behind successful parties if they are to make their “new politics” promise more than a pleasant dream.