Belfast Telegraph

New party 'full of enthusiasm'

The leader of Northern Ireland's newest political party has insisted a novel approach to campaigning is making a difference on the doorsteps.

NI21 co-founder Basil McCrea claimed the strategy, which has seen a comedy routine incorporated into an election broadcast and the distribution of leaflets entitled Don't Vote For Us, was indicative of the party's fresh, youthful outlook.

At the launch of NI21's European election manifesto, Mr McCrea, a former senior figure in the Ulster Unionist Party, highlighted that he had canvassed on the doorsteps in the predominantly republican area of Andersonstown in west Belfast.

While NI21 supports the retention of the link with the Union, it stresses a desire to focus less on the constitutional debate than on how to improve society across Northern Ireland.

"It was an interesting experience for me," Mr McCrea said of his visit to Andersonstown.

"You met a group of people who said 'we are delighted you are actually making an effort because it shows that it's normal politics' and I have to say I got some people who said 'you are very brave just to turn up'."

Mr McCrea said the way the party was putting across its pluralist message - the Don't Vote For Us slogan was emblazoned above the small print If You Think The Past Is More Important Than The Future - had gained a positive reception.

Five of NI21's 30 election billboards are in the Irish language.

"We tried to go and do things differently and it does appear to be making a difference," he said.

"We are still less than a year old but we are full of enthusiasm."

At the manifesto launch at a Belfast hotel, the party's European election candidate Tina McKenzie claimed Northern Ireland was losing out on investment from Brussels due to an over-concentration on peace process funding streams.

Predicting that peace funding programmes would soon come to an end, she claimed far greater support was available through other EU avenues.

"Northern Ireland MEPs must shift their focus from primarily selling the peace process in Europe to promoting the people of Northern Ireland - our business skills and our excellent products," she said.

"We need representation in Europe that is fit for the 21st Century."

She added: "We need to actively engage with Europe and ensure we get access to that investment and those funds in a smart cohesive way and not just rely on peace funding.

"Northern Ireland is not getting what it should be getting and I suspect that is because we're focusing on the wrong things.

"If you want people to come and invest in Northern Ireland I don't think we should send a divided politics to the heart of Europe because that impacts what investment we get."

Ms McKenzie, a businesswoman and mother-of-three, comes from a strong republican background, with her father having been in the IRA, but insists she wants to embrace a different type of politics.

"I have canvassed in all areas and I think it's less these days about this unionist and nationalist question," she said.

"People are really talking about jobs and unemployment. We have got one of the highest poverty rates in western Europe, we have kids today in Northern Ireland that are starving and we have politicians in Stormont arguing about flags, parades and the past.

"I think irrespective of people's backgrounds that's way more important to them - how they are going to feed their kids, how they are going to give their kids jobs, what type of society are we leaving here for our kids, what type of legacy - so I think that's what people are more interested in rather than what's your religion or do you call yourself a unionist or nationalist."

As well as standing a candidate in the European elections, NI21 is running 47 candidates in the local government elections.

Ms McKenzie said the party would not measure success purely in terms of the number of seats it wins.

"Every single person that votes for me will make a change in Northern Ireland because they (critics) cannot say that people in Northern Ireland do not want change," she said.

"And it doesn't matter how many, it doesn't genuinely matter, because it will grow and grow when our message gets out there. Because the only thing we have got on our side is that we are right."

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