Only the creation of a new party can challenge widespread disillusionment with Assembly politics, write Basil McCrea and John McCallister
It is time for a confident, generous, progressive pro-Union party to step forward and build support for a modern Northern Ireland. At a time when a recent opinion poll shows clearly that a significant majority of our citizens across the community support the current constitutional position, pro-Union parties should not be leading a retreat into sectarian trenches.
Flags protests, dissident activity, economic austerity and rising unemployment threaten our peace and prosperity. The trauma of our past continues to haunt us.
The decision to run a Unionist Unity candidate in the Mid-Ulster by-election will do little to improve the situation. In fact, it will make matters worse.
The political monopoly of the Big Two has not served Northern Ireland well. Their time in office has been a failure. But where is the alternative? The SDLP, UUP and Alliance are trapped in an Executive which robs them of their independence. Unless they leave the Executive and assert their independence, they are doomed.
The decision to run a Unionist Unity candidate will have far-reaching implications. It confirms there is little to separate the current unionist parties. At every future election a call for a Unionist Unity candidate will be heard. A diverse pluralist electorate will reject such a one-size-fits-all approach.
Many who would describe themselves as unionist believe in a shared future. Many who would not describe themselves as unionist are happy with a Northern Ireland identity. These people need someone to vote for. Democracy itself needs a choice. And Northern Ireland needs a new political dynamic.
We have concluded that a new political party is required. We cannot say yet what the party will be called (that depends on discussions with the Electoral Commission), but we can outline the guiding principles:
• A Northern Ireland party determined to represent all sections of our community;
• A party that is not afraid to speak out;
• An independent party which believes that Northern Ireland's future is best advanced within the Union;
• A party committed to the values enshrined in the Belfast Agreement;
• A party that does not need to wrap itself in a flag to provide leadership;
• A party which believes in individuals as agents of change, where religious persuasion should not define political beliefs and where matters of conscience are left to the individual.
In setting up a new party, we do not underestimate the challenges. We are aware that many political parties are vying for the attention of the electorate.
Some will be disappointed that we did not join them, given that we are in agreement on a number of significant policy areas.
However, many people are disillusioned with the current political process. A significant number have encouraged us to start a new party. If the existing parties were the answer, this would not be the case.
We believe the people of Northern Ireland are alarmed by the current political situation, but are determined not to return to the past.
They want difficult issues confronted and resolved – not swept under the carpet. They want better government, more effective politicians and, above all, choice.
A key aspect of our platform is the creation of a democratic Opposition in the Assembly. We strongly endorse the principles of power-sharing enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, but this does not mean that citizens should be deprived of an effective Opposition.
An effective Opposition committed to the future of Northern Ireland will not only hold the Executive to account, but will provide a viable alternative in subsequent elections.
We have accepted the challenge to build a new party, but cannot do it on our own. The truth is politics is too important to be left to the politicians. If the electorate want better politics they will have to become more engaged in the process.
An informed and interested electorate is essential for democracy to prevail and Northern Ireland to prosper.