Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

NI21 AGM: Less grey hair, more women among the elected

Tina McKenzie shares a stage with John McCallister at the launch of NI21 in June.
Tina McKenzie shares a stage with John McCallister at the launch of NI21 in June.

"You are very good looking and I'm not that old," Tina McKenzie, chair of NI21, protested as as she insisted on giving Ben Acheson a congratulatory kiss after he was nominated to the NI21 executive.

Earlier Ben (27) had asked her not to do any of that luvvy stuff but he took the joke in good humour.

As it happened, he didn't make it to the leadership.

The incident summed up the atmosphere at the party's first AGM.

In most other party gatherings Tina, 44 and looking a good deal less would be one of the youngsters but here she was surrounded by 20 and 30-somethings.

That is healthy – NI21 is reaching parts of the electorate that others aren't and there were a lot of women present too.

Women and the young tend not to vote never mind attend political conferences, but here they were bursting with enthusiasm.

Most established parties would envy this reach, but there is a downside. People new to politics inevitably lack experience.

Many of these eager youngsters don't yet realise how much hard slog is involved with less than six months to prepare for council and European elections on May 22.

NI21's general secretary David Rose, an old hand from the PUP who trains political parties abroad, realised that as he tried to organise the membership into constituency associations.

"Some don't know what constituency they live in," he said.

A questioner from the floor asked him and Tina McKenzie if Westminster and Stormont constituencies were the same. They are, and most people preparing for elections would have that basic information. "As I see it the next year will either make or break us.

"If we can turn this goodwill and this volunteering mood into really well functioning constituency organisations then I think we will grow. If we don't meet that challenge, lets not pretend, it will be a struggle," Mr Rose said.

One hope must be that, as it builds, NI21 will attract experienced defectors from other parties who already know the ropes.

Those who were elected to the executive showed a wide spread of backgrounds.

They included blogger Stephen Hillis, Annette Holden, a former female army officer, trade union official Olive Buckley and diet guru Suzanne Chalkley who runs a health and tanning business.

That is more women, and less grey hair, than you'd find on most executives.