Comment: Check-mate for NI21?

Ex UUP Party members Basil McCrea and John McAllister pictured in Belfast the day after they left their party last year.
Ex UUP Party members Basil McCrea and John McAllister pictured in Belfast the day after they left their party last year.

As a 35 year old “guardian reading, left wing hippy” (a description I did not give myself) I had finally given up on politics.

I decided that no one in Northern Ireland was going to live up to my expectations of what a politician should be.

I was sick, sore and tired of the empty promises, corruption allegations, scandal, stupidity and the downright embarrassing behaviour that seemed to be on constant flow from our political representatives.

This time I couldn’t even be bothered to register to vote, I missed the deadline - so I thought - busy running round after the little boy (now 16 months) that I was going to no doubt pin my changing the world dreams upon.

But then I got the call that would completely mess with my newly-found political freedom from the feelings of responsibility that came from my innate belief in democracy.

I was revelling in the land of “I couldn’t care less” for once, this time I wasn’t even going to have to think of clever or sarcastic put downs when I creatively and artistically spoilt my ballot.

My old school friend Jayne Olorunda (author of the book Legacy about the murder of her Nigerian father by the IRA in 1980) revealed she was standing for election. I groaned and rolled my eyes - practically obligatory when you’re trying to be politically nonchalant but at the same time I was secretly jealous of her courage but confused at her choice of party.

Yikes! Despite having gone to great effort over the years to cast a spoilt vote in protest this time I couldn’t offer my friend my vote.

However, luckily she wasn’t standing in my area, I kept silent about my embarrassing apathetic secret.

Then I started listening to Jayne and her reasons for choosing the party.

I hadn’t realised they were designated Unionist but I liked their style, well what Jayne told me so far.

I emotionally and intellectually bought in.

I thought NI21 was going to give people who couldn’t be heard a voice and Jayne would be one of them.

I set about relieving my guilt for not registering to vote by doing what I could to help her - this included meeting with people from the party. I play the cheeky, question asking side kick very well.

During this time, much to my initial dismay, I found out that my good friend Alison Crawford was also standing (Alison is an academic and well known advocate for disabled issues and who has Spina Bifida herself) I was over the moon, that was my decision made - NI21 was the party for me.

But embarrassingly I was not registered to vote. Worse still Alison was a candidate in my area - my feelings of political freedom were dashed beyond belief. I now felt a terrible sense of disappointment in myself - the one year I get apathetic, everyone else stands up to be counted.

Much to my surprise I found out I could still register and I rallied a few more family members who hadn’t and off we went. My guilt was gone and I was back in the game, a democratic voter ready to unleash my one vote that would change the world - or at least give my friend Alison a chance to.

As time passed I realised my renewed youth-like enthusiasm and excitement about politics was going to be short lived.

Disorganisation, lack of communication, lack of integrity and the presence of a number of fame hungry ego maniacs meant NI21 was fighting a losing battle.

I realise now that many of the candidates were just pawns in the party’s ill thought out and badly planned election campaign.

Black, Chinese, Catholic, disabled, female, victim....it’s like someone made a shopping list and ticked it off.

Candidates were added, taken away, moved about and promised the world.

All these newbie politicians wanted was a good, solid party executive who would support them, teach them and most of all help them to get elected.

Looking back I wonder did NI21 ever want to win, it seemed to me to be an ego trip for a number of people who used it to their advantage and jumped ship when they hit the iceberg.

There were no life boats, they took everyone down with them as the election played out.

I keep asking myself the question - was the announcement of so many candidates a money spinning exercise that would allow the party to spend their budget on their real goal - to get an elected representative into Europe?

Every leaflet paid for by each candidate and their funders included information about the European election.

Free leaflets and lots more canvassers toeing the party line (which was that they also had to talk about Europe on the doorsteps) was getting the message out to more doors - was this just a relatively clever political business move at the expense both financially and ethically of the new inexperienced political hopefuls willing to do “their part” for the greater good?

Much like the terrible quality jumper you are refusing to bin even though it’s clearly had its day the NI21 executive began unravelling at the seams.

Rumours of party splits, secret tweets alluding to inappropriate behaviour, canvassers and candidates finding out they were being fed the same lines with no action, the loss of many members, the lack of a press officer just weeks before Election Day, embarrassing media decisions made by party executives and a string of explosive headlines picked away at the core, poisoning the apple from within. Right up until very close to the election all seemed perfect on the outside - until we all started taking our bite.

The romantic notion that NI21 would offer a rational, sensible, alternative to Northern Ireland politics was crumbling before our eyes.

But this wasn’t the fault of the inexperienced newly-found candidates on the ground. No, the blame here lies firmly at the door of the party executives.

Basil McCrea should have led his party with better focus and a solid strategy from which everyone could have stayed true to.

John McAllister should have been more vocal and stepped in sooner when things began to crumble.

Tina McKenzie should have resigned from the executive before the voters cast in her favour. She must have known how she felt before the polls opened on Thursday it was unfair and - in my opinion - unsatisfactory to wait until the voters no longer had a say.

Whatever you may think of the party executive of NI21 I would urge you to take a minute to consider each and every candidate who put their reputation on the line, their personal life and work life on hold and who genuinely stood on your doorstep believing in the principle of progressive politics.

Don’t let the minority of bumbling fools stop you from embracing change or looking to the future. It doesn’t matter what NI21s success or failure rate at the polls is - what matters is whether those 47 new candidates have made a genuine difference that a new political party - whether NI21 or not - can build upon.

As for those bumbling fools who couldn’t run a campaign to elect a president of a chess club let alone one that will affect our every day life.....well, we may be disappointed but are we really surprised?

For me the question still remains - were these candidates just pawns unleashed as cannon fodder for party royalty?