It seems like only five minutes ago that almost 500 people crammed into two rooms in the MAC for the launch of NI21.
Most of them were new to politics and many of them were young and filled with the sort of Tiggerish enthusiasm that makes you believe that anything is possible. And on that balmy June night almost anything did, indeed, seem possible: because this was ‘fresh’ politics, next generation politics, and new era politics for a post-conflict Northern Ireland.
Other parties, particularly Alliance and the UUP, sat up and took notice, because they realised that this new kid on the block had the potential to eat into their support and rob them of seats.
A few weeks later John McCallister invited me down to Newcastle to meet a group of NI21 members and supporters and talk them through the harsh realities facing a new party. I told them that it would be hard work, the sort of work that requires non-stop commitment and a willingness to knock doors and evangelise long before the election season started. I cautioned against getting too hung up with the supposed power of social media and concentrate instead on meeting people and talking to them. I urged them to construct an easily understood platform and promote a deliverable alternative rather than just complain about the other parties. I advised them to have all of their candidates in place by the end of December.
I also warned them that there would be fall-outs and arguments and that some would leave after the initial excitement wore off; while others suddenly realised that active politics required a great deal more than chats and keyboards and wouldn’t be up for it anymore. I closed with this: “You have nine months to prove that you are a serious player in local politics, just nine months to convince the media and voters that you have something other than momma’s milk and apple pie to offer. If, for whatever reason, you get it wrong on May 22, then it’s very unlikely that you will be given a second chance. Politics is that brutal and the electorate, the media and the other parties won’t make it easy for you.”
We may never know all of the reasons why NI21 crashed and burned in such a spectacular fashion. Yes, we know about some of the headline, slightly lurid stuff, and that clearly had a devastating impact on them. We know, too, that they left the selection of candidates until weeks before the election and opted for a gimmicky, slogan focused, cliché heavy, social media campaign rather than a traditional campaign.
We know that they struggled to get candidates and struggled to build campaign teams around them. We know that there wasn’t a coherent, core message and theme. We know that they struggled – and mostly failed – to differentiate themselves from Alliance. We know that they caused confusion when they supported – at least some of them did – a ‘drawing of a line under the past’.
What we don’t know is why, two days before the election, they chose to announce that they were planning to designate themselves as ‘other’ rather than unionist. We don’t know why the candidates weren’t consulted about that decision: indeed a number have confirmed that the first they heard about it was when they got a call from Basil McCrea while they were knocking doors. We don’t know why the decision was announced when it was clear that it couldn’t be implemented until after the 2016 Assembly election.
We don’t know why key members of the party executive chose to announce their resignations before the polls had opened. We don’t know who knew about the McCrea story because there has been a tidal wave of claim and counter claim since May 20. We don’t even know who actually runs the party any more because when members aren’t resigning they are hanging on and briefing against each other. Bizarrely, the interim executive even leaked a statement saying that they thought leaks were damaging the party: and five minutes after that leak there was a leak from Lagan Valley ‘sources’ saying that the association executive was planning to resign en masse in the next few days!
In the great scheme of things does any of this even amount to a hill of beans?
Basil McCrea and John McCallister will almost certainly lose their seats in 2016 and if NI21 continues to exist in the meantime it will probably be in name only.
Assembly funding will be reduced, meaning that staff will be laid off. Members will continue to wander away. What remains of the party is divided into Basil/John camps: although there is a smallish core who won’t take sides and seem determined to mount their own rescue campaign. McCallister has confirmed that he will be leaving the party and it strikes me as impossible that McCrea could offer the credibility and clout required to lead it on his own. In essence, therefore, NI21 is dead.
That’s actually bad news. A lot of new, interesting and articulate people were attracted to politics last year and they have been let down. Let down by the catastrophic implosion of the McCrea/McCallister relationship (and there’s nothing messier than the fall out of once close friends) and let down by a party executive which didn’t think it necessary to keep them informed. Fresh politics, my arse: a lot of this was just old politics, old personality clashes and old methods for dealing with the foot soldiers. Even now, a month after the implosion, the members are still being kept in the dark.
It’s also bad news for those who still want new politics and a new way of doing business here. Who, in their right mind, having watched NI21, would want to set up, let alone get involved in another project?
NI21 probably can’t continue because it will always be haunted by the name and the memories – the party political equivalent of Gerald Ratner’s suicidal throwaway line, “our stuff is cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich and probably won’t last as long”. So there’s the NI21 obituary: it didn’t last as long as a prawn sandwich.