NI21 needs to stake out its own ground, away from the centre

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NI21 will have been pretty pleased with their first conference.

It was a good turnout – somewhere around 230 by my very unscientific reckoning – the vast majority of whom were new to party politics and on the ‘still breathing’ end of the demographic scale.

New is good in this case. Many of the people who joined the Conservatives, United Kingdom Unionist Party and TUV defected straight from other parties and brought an awful lot of baggage with them: along with an agenda which prioritised attacking former colleagues rather than setting out their own specific identity. And it is worth noting – given how many political parties/organisations have come and gone since 1970 – that most of them implode because they dedicate themselves to navel gazing and settling old scores.

Basil McCrea and John McCallister do bring baggage and unhappy memories with them. They clearly weren’t happy in the UUP and so there must have been a temptation to use Saturday’s leadership speeches to ‘have a go’ at Nesbitt and others. Wisely, they chose not to. Instead, they set out the reasons for establishing NI21 and presented an agenda and platform (which still needs fleshed out and properly costed, by the way), which, they hope, will inspire their present members and attract hundreds more, along with thousands of votes. Interestingly, the early attacks on them – coming courtesy of Twitter as the conference was being live screened across social media – were coming mostly from the younger end of Alliance. I wonder why? Do they feel threatened? Is the NI21 audience the sort of people they hoped would join them instead?

They also used the conference to kick-start constituency associations, drawing up names of people and then encouraging them to meet separately over lunch and coffee. That’s a good idea. Many of these people will never have met before and there’s always a tendency towards drift if they’re not given direction and something to do. They will need those associations up and running very quickly if they are to have any chance of getting canvass/campaigning teams in place for the Euro and council elections in May 2014. More important, they will need every single one of their members knocking doors, peddling the NI21 message everywhere they can, identifying themselves as members to their friends, family and colleagues and defending it when the well-orchestrated and brutal attacks start coming – as they will – from the bigger parties. In other words, the success or otherwise of NI21 is as much down to their personal commitment and enthusiasm as it is to McCrea and McCallister.

I’m still not entirely sure where they are pitching themselves in political/electoral terms, though. This is from the end of McCrea’s speech: “If we want to build a better Northern Ireland, if we want the centre to hold, it is incumbent upon each and every one of us not only to vote but encourage others. Northern Ireland will only change if the centre holds. I want you to have the courage to speak out, the conviction to stand up for what we believe and the commitment to make NI21 the party of Northern Ireland. Our future is in your hands. The centre must hold.”

Actually, the very worst thing that can happen is for the centre to hold, because the centre in Northern Ireland is the halfway house between unionism and republicanism. Alliance has been on that centre ground for years and singularly failed to transform itself into the party of choice, let alone the party of Northern Ireland. Indeed, it has never come close to repeating the 13 per cent it gained at its first election back in 1973.

And that’s because – and I’ve been saying it for years – the centre ground between unionism and republicanism is as relevant as Narnia, Never-Never land or Hogwarts. It is a place of fantasy and comfort blanket philosophy. So bizarre, in fact, that the leader of Alliance has just given the go-ahead for a peace wall to be erected in the grounds of a church in east Belfast! Yes, Mr Centre Party himself (hauled into the Executive by the DUP and Sinn Fein to prop up their carve-up) is now forced to add to rather than diminish the number of palpable divisions here.

So NI21, if it is to make itself politically/electorally relevant, must avoid what is presently understood as the centre ground. Heading there merely takes them into an avoidable battle with Alliance and gets them embroiled in utterly pointless spats with Sinn Fein and the DUP who, hard though it is to believe, imagine themselves to be the architects and maintainers of the centre ground.

There is a place for NI21 – or some other party. It is far, far away, from a centre ground already defined and staked out by others. Many of those who don’t vote are fed up with the never-ending us-and-them tussle which passes for politics here; they are fed up with everything, every single issue, being reduced to a version of the ‘dreary old steeples’ debate; fed up with headcounts, vetoes, petitions-of-concern and ‘you started it’; fed up with the Assembly’s seemingly congenital inability to make any decision; and fed up with parties, even Alliance, fighting and refighting the same old wars. In essence, Northern Ireland politics resembles a gigantic historical reenactment society.

A new party that wants votes and wants to make itself relevant to the tens of thousands of the ‘fed up’ demographic needs to steer well away from the old game and the even older rules. It needs to stake out entirely new territory and then build a campaign around a ‘we’re over here, come and join us’ message. Saturday was a good day for NI21, yet not much more than that. Courage, conviction and commitment are required: but so, too, is a very specific destination.