Belfast Telegraph

NI21 leader Basil McCrea tells conference 'it's now time we moved away from our past to build for the future'

by LIAM CLARKE

NI21, Northern Ireland's newest political party, wants to "draw a political line under the past" and move on without "picking at old wounds", its first annual conference was told.

Party leader Basil McCrea insisted that victims should be helped to deal with their trauma in practical ways but urged politicians and the media to stop focusing on old atrocities.

"Those that argue that we cannot build a future until we have dealt with the past are wrong," he stated.

"If we are forced to relive every act of barbarism, if we continue to report every atrocity as if it happened yesterday, if we continue to open old wounds, to pick at the scabs of our past, we will never escape our past nor heal our community," Mr McCrea said.

He went on: "It does not matter how balanced the media coverage is, it does not matter how sympathetically a programme is produced, if you report on the Shankill bombing, the Greysteel massacre and the escape from the Maze all in one week, it will have an impact; there will be a reaction and we will all have to deal with the consequences."

Deputy leader John McCallister told the Belfast Telegraph: "You need to a draw a political line in the sand about this but you need to keep going the work that goes on with victims groups, quiet help and financial support, help with mental needs but the hyping up of tensions about Castlederg and other commemorations is not healing our community.."

They also proposed radical changes to the political system.

"I pledge today that NI21 will pursue the devolution of more powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly including, but not restricted to income tax and stamp duty. The prospect of devolving income tax will concentrate the minds of the politicians and the electorate a like," Mr McCrea said.

He listed his key proposals as the introduction of a Bill to establish an official opposition which is essential for normal accountable politics.

He proposed the renaming of the office of the First and deputy First Minister as the Office of the Joint First Ministers.

He said: "Martin McGuinness is already First Minister in all but name. In one move we will remove one of the most misleading, divisive and sectarian elements of our electoral system allowing members of the public to vote for MLAs on merit rather than a sectarian headcount.

He also wants an election of the Assembly Speaker by secret ballot saying: "And on election we propose to elevate him or her to become MLA for Stormont, assuring that they act in the sole interest of the Assembly."

Next year Mr McCallister will introduce a bill at Stormont aimed at setting up an official opposition to replace the current multi-party coalition.

Meanwhile, an Irish government representative has said that the issue of Irish unity has been settled for a generation, and "what we have got to do now is make north/south cooperation work to everyone's advantage."

Brian Hayes, a Minister of State in the Department of Finance, was attending the NI21 conference, which was briefly addressed in Irish by John McCallister the deputy leader.

"The constitutional issue is resolved for this generation," Mr Hayes told the conference. "Now it's time to reach a new accommodation and a new understanding between both parts of this island." he added.

Sinn Fein wants a border poll before 2016 and is urging the Irish government to draw up a blueprint for unity.

However Mr Hayes, a member of Fine Gael, dismissed the idea.

"The reality is that the issue is resolved" he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"I think there is absolutely no appetite north or south for some kind of artificial test that Sinn Fein might want to pose. I don't see a border poll happening within my political lifetime and I am 44."

STORY SO FAR

NI21 was founded in June by Basil McCrea and John McCallister, two UUP MLAs who left the party after it joined forces with the DUP to field an agreed unionist candidate to contest the Mid Ulster by election in March. NI21 is a moderate, pro-Union party which aims to replace the orange/green political divide with a political dialogue around social and economic issues. The party also argues for the establishment of an official opposition at Stormont.

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