Monday, 19 May 2014

Why I'm voting NI21 on May 22nd

In his epic history of the Russian Revolution, A People's Tragedy, the British historian Orlando Figes suggested, "It would be absurd - and in Russia's case obscene - to imply that a people get the rulers it deserves." And yet only a few sentences earlier, he had suggested that the Russian people were as much "the participants in their own revolutionary drama rather than as 'victims'..." The point he was trying to make, I think, was that the Russian people did not deserve the governments they got after 1917 but they were nonetheless participants in making them possible. The same situation seems to me to be equally, if less bloodily, applicable to Northern Ireland as we hurtle rapidly through the second decade of the twenty-first century with a government at Stormont that absolutely nobody seems enthusiastic for, but which we're yet to do anything about changing.

On 22nd May this year, I will be voting for NI21, a new political party set up by former Ulster Unionist MLAs Basil McCrea and John McAllister. The party is unionist, it is avowedly non-sectarian (compared to some DUP candidates who feel the need to post a Facebook status every time they manage to persuade a Catholic to vote for them - news flash, it's 2014, the country's existed since 1921 and 50% of the population are Catholic; it shouldn't be a big achievement to secure support from 50% of your constituents, it should be an every day occurrence), it's actually had meaningful dialogue explaining its position with nationalists and republican groups north and south of the border, and so far it is the only unionist party to take a firm stance on supporting marriage equality. For me, the latter is a significant issue facing the country at the minute, along with the economy and education, and I stand with the rest of the United Kingdom's governments in believing that in a nation where secular marriages are allowed in registry offices, a single religion long ago lost the right to define what a marriage is. If a secular right is extended to one set of taxpaying citizens, it stands to reason that it should be extended to all - to say nothing of denominations like certain sections of the Quaker community and the Affirming Pentacostal Church who would like to perform same-sex marriages in accordance with their interpretation of theology. Not to extend the same marital rights granted to a non-believing opposite gender couple is, to me, rank inequality and vicious discrimination of the most blatant kind, no matter what verses from Leviticus you truss it up in. And I say that as a practising Christian who does not want my religion defined for me by our politicians at Stormont and then to have that put into legislation.

Civil rights for gay couples may not be one of your vote-deciding priorities, but my point is that we have got to stop voting on no other basis than how orange or green our parties claim to be. When you do that, we enable the re-election of  saber-rattling demagogues who don't have to work as hard as they should because they know that issues like flags and prisoners' memorials reach into our collective cultural memories to elicit deep emotional responses - and votes. But the result is that our politicians are essentially unaccountable, there is no opposition at Stormont giving any of the Big Two (and make no bones about it, it's the Big Two and the "also starring" support act of the UUP and SDLP) a run for their money. We need parties like NI21, we need parties with new candidates, new opinions and new attitudes to shake things up. We need, as young and old to get out there, to vote, to take a stand and to do something for this tiny part of the world that we all claim to love but with which we are all so perpetually disappointed. We need to expect better - we certainly deserve it. We love its people but we despair of its leaders; that much has been true of most people in the North of Ireland for the best part of two decades and it's time we did something to change it. The politicians work for us and yet most of us are dissatisfied consumers. When was the last time you heard anyone in Northern Ireland seem genuinely excited about any of the political parties at Stormont? Those enthusiasts may still exist, but they're a dying breed. Cynicism here is as endemic as it is justified.

In the last few elections I have voted Ulster Unionist and Alliance; for a very long time I felt genuine support for the Alliance Party. But two things jolted me out of that sympathy. The first was that a vision of a Shared Future seemed a bit less enticing when two of the party's MLAs voted against the legalisation of gay marriage in the spring of this year; I utterly respect their right to have done so, I applaud them for remaining true to their religious principles - equally, I as a voter am no longer inclined to vote for them. All principles have a cost. The second issue I had was when the Alliance's Anna Lo claimed she supported a united Ireland because she was against colonialism. The party did not censure her or hand her a disciplinary notice; I think perhaps they were right to do so. But at the very least they could have handed her a dictionary. By referring to Northern Ireland as a functioning remnant of colonialism, Miss Lo implied that the entire state was the result of an imperialist policy. The extension  of that was that everyone living in Northern Ireland who supports a union with Britain rather than Ireland was a colonialist - not yet a true son of the northern Irish soil, an interloper, a testament to a foreign presence. That is undoubtedly not what she meant, but words have nothing beyond their definition. We should not use them unless we know what they mean and that is doubly the case with our politicians of whom we should expect more, not less. Like the word "fascist," "colonialist" is an ugly word that is both overused and misused. Miss Lo's belief in the benefits of a united Irish republic are something she is more than entitled to articulate and there are some very strong arguments in favour of an all-Ireland government, I just happen to disagree with them at the moment, but to refer to the system here as colonialist was as cheap and sensationalist as it was silly and misleading.

I am voting for NI21 because I personally believe in the right to equal marriage for all British citizens, because I am excited about their policy to broaden inclusivity and cultural diversity at a council level, to increase tourism facilities in my region and because fresh blood, fresh faces and fresh politics are exactly what this province needs. I had to read all the pamphlets that came through my door to make sure I wasn't voting for something on the basis of hope rather than research, but I'm hopeful that this decision for me is the right one. Their election may not just revitalise the other parties by giving them a sense of competition, a catfish in the tank as it were, but also because the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. We live in a wonderful place with great problems but even greater possibilities and fresh politics might just help make that possible. I wish all the candidates standing the best of luck, even the ones I disagree with, because they are trying to do something to help their country and that, ultimately, is a noble thing in both the elected and the electorate.

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