For a majority, the so-called political 'silent majority' can be a pretty lonely place sometimes. For anyone with any knowledge of Northern Irish life, it goes without saying that this time of year can be a dire state of affairs. The flutes, drums, parades and grandstanding that, in any other country would be seen as a fun family day out, are symbolic of division in Northern Ireland; where roads act as territory and flags are both social currency and cultural markers. From the outside peering in, anyone would be forgiven for thinking at many times in its relatively short history, Northern Ireland has seemed like a lost cause. But from the perspective of someone on the inside, the desensitisation to the likes of peace walls, sectarian murals or religious divides serve a significantly different purpose: it makes every small step towards progressive politics seem like a relatively large victory.
The division of the people is backed up by the division of the politics. NI21 - as Northern Ireland's newest political entity - has a mandate to change this. The party has been formed by Basil McCrea and John McCallister, both former members of the Ulster Unionist Party, respectively. After their departure from the UUP, many continued to speculate the direction the pair would take, and what the implications (if any) they could have for the Northern Irish political landscape. Behind the scenes, a political party was slowly coming together. Since the formation, their tag line of 'fresh politics' has been displayed on t-shirts to twitter hash-tags, and it must be said, it is an appealing prospect. The engagement with social media and the attempts to create a more liberal minded opposition - especially when engaging with the LGBT community in Northern Ireland - is helping to cement their reputation as a promising prospect for voters that find DUP/Sinn Fein too hardline, find the Greens lacking influence or have found Alliance to be too easily influenced by the other major political players. Of course, as with all politics, this is all up for debate. It is still early days, and even though first impressions are vital, especially in politics, it is the act of maintaining a good impression while producing actual policy that will either be the saving grace or the death knell for NI21.
Stepping out into the fresh Belfast air after the launch of the party, I felt strangely engaged by the notion of fresh politics. Those I attended alongside seemed to agree, and as we pondered the reason it quickly struck me that the fact we were even discussing such matters was a step forward. The launch itself was an interesting affair, and one that I have resisted writing about until now, for reasons unknown. There is an inclination it is because it felt too good to be true. That's what years of hardline politics can do to the mind - the creeping uncertainty that it's all only as good as a dream, with the truth of cold-hearted division waiting behind the promises and mere words; that any notion of positivity can be destroyed by simply waking up. The launch of NI21 explained the choice of name (bringing Northern Ireland into the 21st Century) and showcased the main aims of the party. There were a number of speakers, but the main show was reserved for Basil McCrea and John McCallister. The one quote that stood out from the night was from Mr McCrea, when he stated
"I am Northern Irish, an Ulsterman, British and Irish but I am more than that, I am an individual, a person, a human being and I reject the labels that others try to put on me. Our party does not put labels on people, for no two individuals are the same and there is one particular label I want to deal with"
When I emailed NI21 requesting a statement my intent was to gauge how they felt the party will impact on Northern Ireland, especially in relation to the other political opposition. I also asked if NI21 intended to try and appeal to 'Northern Irish' as a cultural identity, as the latest census had shown that an increasing number of the population are choosing to identify as such.
Basil McCrea noted:
"If the challenge for the past 10 years was bedding down the peace, the challenge for the next 10 years is realising an economic peace dividend"
while John McCallister chose to highlight the importance of their intended will to stay linked to the UK, stating:
"Polls repeatedly show over 70% of Northern Irish citizens are happy to remain in the UK. We feel we can capitalise on that massive constituency, and allow everyone to celebrate their culture and diversity whether they see their cultural background as Irish, British, Northern Irish or neither"
What I have found refreshing is their appeal to the so called 'silent majority', even if it is never directly referenced as such. In my correspondence with NI21, Party Chair Tina McKenzie called it the "'non voter' stream of would-be electors". But who is this silent majority? It is those that whisper instead of protest on the street corners. It is the punks, the secularists, the atheists, the activists and many within the LGBT community. It is those that are more likely to give an opinion via social media than a ballot box. It is the men and women that want to be able to bring their child to a local park without having to walk down a designated path to get there.
If NI21 can create policy to back up the promising statements of intent, and continue to engage the often disillusioned silent majority there is a very good chance that their ideals of fresh politics may quickly catch on. It is only through engaging constant Northern Irish problems - religious integration, border polls and cultural confusion - that NI21 will create a lasting influence. Many journalists and commentators know that the likes of the DUP act best when cornered, but I can't shake the same initial feeling I felt as I walked out of the NI21 launch, that even the smallest step towards progressive politics seemed like a relatively large victory.
You can find me on Twitter at @Jason_A_Murdock
NI21 Twitter: @NI21official