John McCallister MLA, deputy leader of NI21, speaking at the inaugural conference held in the Europa Hotel.[/caption]
Speaking at the NI21 Party Conference 2013 in the Europa Hotel in Belfast, John McCallister MLA, NI21 Deputy Leader, began with a few lines in the Irish language again dispelling the traditional view of the Unionist community to the Irish language. He cited a Lurgan unionist who was an Irish speaker and added that “the language belongs to everyone in Northern Ireland, regardless of religion or politics. It’s a great illustration of how and why we need to move on from the old ‘Us v Them’ politics. It’s a great illustration of why NI21 exists – because 21st century Northern Ireland cannot be defined by the old politics of tribalism.
“Today’s Northern Ireland wants a politics of respect, openness, and rich diversity. Not a politics which feeds on and encourages tribal hatreds.” His party appears to be about changing mindsets, and about espousing a modern liberal view of our society and its governance.
John McCallister spoke of his own personal journey saying that while in the UUP, the opportunity to change politics was not possible. He added too that there were good people in the SDLP and Alliance also but they too were constrained from becoming drivers for change in the polity of Northern Ireland. He has his eye on real change and wants to break with the determinism that has for decades he says has dogged politics in Northern Ireland, what he calls the “realities of tribalism”. This underpins much of his political message.
He wants NI21 to be the main agent for political change in Northern Ireland, injecting a new set of values into the system removing the pillars of sectarian politics that have propped up a faltering party political edifice.
John McCallister added: “Over the past year, we have seen tribal politics again attempt to shape the destiny of Northern Ireland. From the disruption caused by protests to the naming children’s play parks. From irresponsible talk of ‘culture wars’ to attempts to hinder police officers going about their duty, and because of inflammatory words from political leaders regarding parades in North Belfast and Castlederg.
“The people of Northern Ireland were forced to almost collectively hold our breath any number of times over the past year, as political cowardice and a failure in leadership led us back almost to the brink. The past year in itself gives a reason for us in NI21 to exist, to campaign, to strive to change politics in our society.
“Our vision, however, is shaped not just by the last year. Our values run deeper, stronger than that. We are, it can be said, the first post-Agreement political party in Northern Ireland. We are shaped by the hopes and optimism that secured the ‘Yes’ vote for the Agreement.
“We are born of the frustration felt by many that the hope and promise of 1998 has given way. Given way to Northern Ireland politics-as-usual, to the same old tribalism, to a political establishment unwilling to and incapable of change.”
However, John McCallister recognises that there has been some significant change in political attitudes among voters. He indicated that successive oponion polls had flagged up that once and for all the political-constitutional issue has been settled and voters and citizens are less likely now to want to be identified by old tribal boundaries. And significantly a new generation of voters born in the post-1998 erea will now almost be ready to vote.
“Over fifteen years of social and generational change, and yet Northern Ireland has the same old Us and Them politics. That is why NI21 has been created. It had to be created. There has to be a means of giving voice again to the hopes and optimism of 1998. There has to be a post-Agreement political party for a post-Agreement generation. There has to be not merely another political party, but another way of doing politics in this society. This is why we are NI21.
“We are a party of the radical centre. We will not prop us the tribalist status quo. We will offer a real alternative, the politics of hope and inspiration for a post-Agreement generation and society. Let’s be honest, we know it is an uphill struggle.
“Two MLAs is a great start – but only a start. There is much work to be done. Campaigns to be fought for Europe, councils, Westminster and Stormont. Our idealism and vision, so necessary to change politics in Northern Ireland will have to be combined with hard-work and determination
“The hard-work and determination that knocks on doors, that encourages citizens disengaged from politics to vote, that does the unglamorous but necessary work of building a new political party. And there will be times – perhaps many times – when the radical centre will be an uncomfortable place to be.
“When the establishment parties beat the drums of tribal politics, the politics of yesteryear, in an attempt to intimidate us. That is when our idealism and hard work, our vision and determination, must combine.That is when our commitment to a new politics for Northern Ireland must not waver.”
In addressing the need for change at the heart of Stormont, John McCallister referred to educational under-achievement in Northern Ireland and said this was an example of why change in the political system was necessary. In referring to Education Minister John O’Dowd, John McCallister said that “he is a competent minister. He is in control of his brief, and he does engage with the Assembly. But, in one of those famous solo runs that were meant to have ended, Minister O’Dowd has decided on a new funding formula to support schools in socially-disadvantaged areas.
“He is right – schools in socially-disadvantated areas do need more support, greater financial resources.” But he goes on to add that Minister O’Dowd has deprived other schools in the process of funds from their budgets in a knock-on effect to support his initiative.
He said: “Many of you who are parents with school-aged children will have heard from your local schools about the educational damage this will do. Something else also concerns me about this… how divisive it is. Rather than building a consensus for social justice that recognises the need for additional support for schools in socially-disadvantaged areas, the Education Minister has brought division, sectionalism and conflict.
“We all lose when children are failed by our education system. Yes, in Northern Ireland we have some fine schools and some great examination results, but we also have a shameful rate of educational underachievement. Children and young people across our society who are left behind, deprived of opportunity in school and then in employment.
“If we in Northern Ireland want a flourishing society and a prospering economy, we must – must – address the levels of educational underachievement and disadvantage. But dividing schools and parents, pitting them against one another – that is not the way to do it. So what would NI21 do?
“There should not be winners and losers when we are attempting to tackle educational underachievement. That is why we in NI21 are calling for a ring fenced pupil premium, directed to schools in socially disadvantaged areas. How would we pay for it?
“As a budgetary consequence of Westminster’s introduction of universal free school meals in England, Stormont will receive an extra £20million annually.
“Rather than fund universal free school meals, NI21 believes that money in Northern Ireland should fund a pupil premuim for pupils in Years 1 to 3 who qualify for free school meals. Approximately £900 per pupil, giving much needed additional support and resources, particularly to schools in socially disadvantaged areas. This is a fairer and more effective policy of tackling underachievement.”
John McCallister said this would tackle under-achievement without punishing other children, parents and schools and would be a win-win situation where all bemefit socially and economically. This too would translate to enhanced opportunity in the workplace too. He described this as the politics of the “common good”.
Underpinning any likely reform, John McCallister recognises that change in how Stormort works is essential. He cited opinion polls that reflected views that only one in ten were satisfied that Stormont was delivering politically, and concludes the “need for reform is obvious”, but tinged with realism, he also in the same breath recognises that this topic of reforming Stormont is not altogether attractive to the many voters and citizens.
But he sets out his stall explaining how NI21 expects this transformation of reforming the Assembly and the Executive can be operationally achieved.
As a premise, John McCallister says that “The structures of government created in 1998 were devised to provide a pathway from violence to peace, from mistrust to consensus. D’hondt and power-sharing were designed to ensure that we ended perpetual government by a single group and perpetual opposition by another.
It was designed to build consensus and trust, to allow partnership to flourish. However, this has not happened because the old politics of tribalism has remained.
“Let me be absolutely clear – NI21 is entirely committed to power-sharing and partnership government. There can never be, there must never be, a return to the old Stormont, to majority rule.
“However, perpetual five party Government – with no party fearful of being removed by the will of the people, with no party in fear of being held to account by an official opposition… this has allowed the tribalism of our political parties to flourish without check. It has allowed parties to practice bad government and call it an achievement.”
John McCallister cited Benjamin Disraeli, the eminent Victorian Prime Minister, who said ‘no Government can be long secure without a formidable opposition‘. He added: “Disraeli was wrong. The Northern Ireland Executive is proof of that” and referrd to “public bickering, the botched decisions, the long-delayed policy announcements, the absence of collective responsibility, the solo-runs by Ministers, the complete absence of leadership from the Executive during the past year in Northern Ireland, the fact that only 9% of people think it is doing a good job… despite all this, the Executive continues secure.”
He then proceeds to explain that half of the viters and probably would be voters are becoming disinterested in te hpolitical process. “Is it then really any wonder that pessimism and cynicism reign in how so many feel about politics? If Northern Ireland is to progress, if our citizens are to have their trust in politics restored, the structures of Stormont have to change.
“Central to this is the need for an Opposition at Stormont – an Opposition to hold Executive and Ministers to account, to scrutinise, to offer citizens authentic choice between Government and Opposition, rather than the fake choice of a sectarian contest at election time.
“That is why I am bringing forward a Private Members Bill proposing an official Opposition.We are issuing a challenge to the other parties. Some of you make noises about the need for an Opposition. Well, here is your chance. Back this bill, support it.
“Work with NI21 to bring this change to how government works here, to give real choice to the people of Northern Ireland. And to NI21 members I say: Go back to your constituencies and prepare for Opposition!”
In a wide reaching comment on the political system, John McCallister also rounded on the Assembly’s scrutiny committees which are meant to hold Ministers to account.
He said in comparing the committee systems of Westminster and Stormont: “If you look at Westminster you see many examples of Select Committees setting aside party loyalties to do the necessary work of scrutiny.
“In Stormont, however, the old politics of tribalism and the narrow party loyalties are too often alive and kicking in scrutiny committees. If we want the scrutiny committees to serve the people rather than the parties, we must change how committee chairs are appointed. We must ensure that an Opposition has a significant presence on the committee chairs, turning them into really effective means of scrutiny and accountability.
“In particular, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee – the tax payers’ watchdog – should be from the Opposition.
“The role of Speaker is also important. A Speaker’s role is to protect and promote the interests of the legislature against the desires of an Executive for a tame, compliant Assembly.
“That is why NI21 wants to change the system to ensure that the Speaker should not be the appointment of a political party, but should be voted on by a secret ballot of all backbenchers in the Assembly and to protect the Speaker from any attempt to influence her or him by their party. On election we support elevating her or him from their constituency to become the MLA for Stormont, ensuring that they are free from attempts by Party or Executive to influence them.”
NI 21 therefore sees official opposition, strong and robust scrutiny committees and a fully independent speaker as essential to good government at Stormont. “These are the ways that we can help restore confidence to politics and turn the Assembly from being a lapdog of the Executive, to a servant of the people,” added John McCallister.
In switching his critical eye to the offices of OFMDFM, he clearly indicates he is “fully supportive of those times when we see First Minister Robinson and deputy First Minister McGuinness standing together, working for Northern Ireland. Then election time comes around, and so begins the sectarian race for First Minister.
“The drum beats and voters are told that they must vote for the DUP to keep Martin out. While that drum beats, Sinn Fein goes about the country saying that they will capture the seat of First Minister because Catholics out-breed Protestants.” He sees this as “pure sectarianism, and an utter fraud…
“It is time to sweep away the fiction and rename the office as that of the Joint First Ministers. This one action would remove one of the most deceitful and sectarian elements of our elections. Let’s stop the divisive pretence. The pretence which drives some people to the ballot box in fear and leaves others disillusioned, disaffected and not voting.
“Beginning a process of normalising our political institutions will help normalise our politics. It will be a sign of hope for post-Agreement Northern Ireland and the post-Agreement generation.”
In his summary, John McCallister spoke of the death of President Kennedy 50 years ago, and quoted the progressive US Democratic leader as saying: ‘”Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.’
Listen to the full speach on VIMEO –
Bullet points made at the summary of John McCallister’s speech
- NI21 is about change.
- NI21 will not miss the future.
- We in NI21 are not about propping up tribal politics.
- We leave that to others.
- We are not about making peace with the politics of tribalism.
- We are about changing politics.
- We are about changing politics for the new Northern Ireland.
- A Northern Ireland at ease with the constitutional settlement.
- A Northern Ireland which identifies with the openness and tolerance of the 21st century United Kingdom.
- A Northern Ireland comfortable in its close, enduring relationship with our neighbours on this Island of Ireland which we share.
- A Northern Ireland proud of its place in Europe.
- A Northern Ireland open, diverse and respectful of diversity.
- A Northern Ireland that refuses to be defined by tribal politics.