Last night the Executive Team of NI21 met (as they do regularly) and a motion of designation was brought up. The team voted and a majority wished the party to switch designation from the divisive “Unionist” to a less sectarian “Other”.
From my point of view, this doesn’t change a thing. I’m unashamedly pro-Union. I think that the United Kingdom is the best option for everyone in Northern Ireland. I think the position is a better declaration of where we stand – the constitutional question is enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement and there are procedures for that. Nothing we do or say can hasten or harm that process.
Everyone in the party, including the Deputy Leader, has been forward in saying that designation is at best an excuse for tackling real issues and at worst a sectarian and divisive artifice. Why there’s such a storm in a teacup about this, I don’t know.
If designation is so important, why was this not raised at the very start of the party when the collected brains got together and debated whether to designate one way, or another. All three options were debated including a Nationalist designation representing Northern Ireland. Unionist was selected because John and Basil who were the only people in the party with any sort of mandate (and that remains true today) were elected on a Unionist ticket. They had the chance to change at the formation of the new party and they chose, with the agreement of everyone present, to remain unionist. But in truth it could have been easily argued either way. The party were aware that the media would whip up some sort of story whichever way they designated so in the end, no change was selected.
It was always going to be a challenge to establish something new when we have legions of journalists who whip up stories from non-issues. This is why we get nowhere as a unionist MLA will complain about the naming of a play park and a republican MLA will complain about the naming of a hospital. This is where designation and indeed tribal politics has led us. We have politicians who are more interested in tribal self-interest than in fixing the issues in Northern Ireland. This is why the worst poverty across Northern Ireland is in areas dominated by the major parties. If the problems of Northern Ireland could be fixed by the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP, UUP or Alliance, then they would have. Why is it that the poorest regions of Northern Ireland are dominated by the big two parties? Because it serves them to keep their communities in poverty.
From canvassing, I’ve seen that most people have no idea about designation and those who are aware of it, think that it’s a stupid idea. But it serves a purpose to help resolve our shameful past and therefore you have to make a decision. It galls me that we are forced to declare our camp but this is the fragile peace we have inherited.
Now while I may have disagreements on the timing of this announcement, the sentiment from the entire party is the same. I remain hopeful to be elected to represent the people of North Down and Ards in a new future. If this change (and a public spat between the Leader and Deputy Leader) means the people of Holywood and Clandeboye do not wish NI21 to represent them, then that is their decision. But every vote matters and I will still be voting in this coming election.