The first two people I bumped into at NI21’s launch were a gay Zen Buddhist and a retired Chief Constable — not something you might expect at the launch of a unionist party.
Neither had been involved in politics before and both were thinking of joining up with Basil McCrea and John McCallister’s party.
Both told me they had been looking for something more left wing and less sectarian than the usual unionist options. Was this what Basil McCrea meant when he talked attracting “fresh faces and fresh ideas”, people who wouldn’t be labelled?
“It is hard to know where to go when you are a gay unionist,” said Adam Murray (24) who works for the gay helpline Carafriend and has been a practising Buddhist for the past five years. He comes from a working class loyalist background and is articulate and savvy.
“I was impressed when they both voted for equal, same-sex marriage in the Assembly. On the whole unionist benches there were only about three people who showed support and Basil and John were two of them” he said.
“I am from Dundonald — mainly DUP and UUP territory where they would hardly talk to you about LGBT issues. The working classes are getting an awful hammering there but aren’t properly represented.
“I am not a unionist because I was raised in a unionist area — I actually believe it is the right thing. For me the UK is about pluralism and tolerance. I am really disappointed when I see flags being put up along the Newtownards Road, getting caught in barbed wire and getting torn to tatters by the wind and the rain. That is not about respect for the flag it is about marking territory,” he added.
John Hamilton is a former Chief Constable of Fife and he agreed. I had first met him when he was a Detective Chief Superintendent in the RUC in Belfast in the late 80s. Since then he had risen like a rocket through the police, for a time at the hard end as Director of Intelligence in the National Criminal Intelligence Service. I had been intrigued when he made the news in Fife as the Chief Constable who advocated a relaxation of the drugs laws shortly before retiring in 2000.
“I have never been a member of a political party. Just a viewer,” Mr Hamilton said. “As I see it there are two elitist groups in control here and there isn’t any real democracy so I was impressed that this might be something different. What I want to see more pluralist inclusive politics and I would certainly consider myself left of centre.”
The atmosphere around them, in the lobby, was like a scene from BBC’s The Thick of It. Spin doctors, advisers and “people we bounce ideas off” dashed in and out of the boardroom and various ante rooms. They chivvied the Press into position, assured us it would be great and lined up speakers to act as the warm up act for Mr McCrea before he made his grand entrance to waves of applause.
There was no faking the enthusiasm though. That was genuine. At times they were like people giving their testimony at a revivalist meeting.
An early star, who had been dragged in to speak at the last minute by one of the party handlers was Newry man Tony McMahon.
He had decided to drive up because, he said “these were two brave men” taking a stand. Mr McMahon had been feeling for some time that “part of what is going on here is my fault” because he was “part of the majority who up to now haven’t bothered.”
Now he would, he was joining NI21.
The place was bursting, well over 200 people, and proceedings had to be streamed live into a large adjoining room which cheered on cue during Mr McCrea’s speech. Mr McCallister gave a less barnstorming performance, but ‘solid’ and ‘sincere’ were the words I heard being used about him.
There was a lot of trust and hope on display from an audience of all ages. The trick will be to satisfy expectations.