Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

‘Our parties should clearly differentiate themselves or merge. Those that feel more comfortable with other parties should leave’

Lagan Valley MLA Basil McCrea

Writing exclusively for the Belfast Telegraph, Basil McCrea says open debate is needed to heal UUP rift

I am disappointed that the disciplinary committee has been postponed. The allegations such as they are cannot be substantiated. I have advanced written party policy to the best of my ability and I am confident that I can win my case in any court in the land.

But then what?

It is self-evident that there is a difference of opinion on a number of substantial and important issues. Can the various views be reconciled, and if so how? How best to have a debate, a reasoned argument without falling out, or appearing ill-disciplined? How should we explain to the electorate how and why such decisions are reached? Informed debate is not being disloyal; it is the very essence of democracy.

Diversity of opinion is not confined to the Ulster Unionist Party, or indeed any party. In fact it is what makes us what we are and who we are. We must find a way to engage with the electorate and with each other, in a way that produces positive outcomes.

The flag protests have provoked the interest of many sections of our community. People previously ambivalent to politics now demand solutions, action, and above all, leadership. The debate rages on social media sites, radio shows and between neighbours but the political response has not inspired the people. We need to look again at our political structures; we need genuine engagement and better communication with the people. Above all, we need to be honest about what we can and cannot do.

Political parties pretend to do this, but fear the wrath of the electorate on difficult issues. Preferring to discuss sensitive issues behind closed doors, party whips, spin doctors and internal discipline ensures that the party is always on message.

This is the political orthodoxy of our time but it leads to disenchantment, disengagement and ultimately a perception that politics does not work. This is dangerous ground, for if politics does not work, other methods will fill the vacuum.

Instinctively, people feel that the Assembly should provide a forum for such debate — but in reality it rarely does so. Longwinded ministerial statements, questions given to ministers in advance and meaningless debates reduce the Assembly to a talking shop.

To the casual observer it may look as if something is being done, but our system of government is too slow, too indecisive, and too ineffective. Given the challenges facing our economy, our social stability, this is not good enough.

We must reform our political structures and while we are at it, perhaps we need to do the same with our political parties. Seeking to maximise their electoral prospects, all parties reach out to non-traditional voters — but the broader the church the more challenging the party management and the more difficult it is for the public to understand what they actually stand for.

Perhaps the time has come for realignment. Political parties should clearly differentiate themselves or merge. Those that feel more comfortable in other parties should leave.

Those that feel they have much in common with others must find a way to work together, to share their vision, engage the community and seek the electorate’s endorsement for their policies.

That is real democracy.

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