John McCallister on Basil McCrea: 'We will never be friends again... this has been the most toxic experience of my life'
An edited transcript of Deborah McAleese's interview with NI21's former deputy leader, John McCallister.
Q. Why have you finally decided to resign?
A. With everything that has been going on within the party over the last few months, I have felt in a very difficult position. I felt my time shouldn't be spent fighting over issues within NI21 whenever I should be fighting for the issues that matter to the people of Northern Ireland.
My guiding principle all along has been a duty of care to staff and members. I believe that if there are allegations against anyone in the party those need to be addressed. I always felt that the executive reluctantly agreed to the Carecall process. Then that process was stopped by the current interim executive appointed by Basil. I felt the process should have been allowed to work.
It is my understanding that some of those allegations have now been taken to the Assembly's Commissioner for Standards. I too have written to the Commissioner outlining some of my concerns. I feel that I have fulfilled my duty of care to staff and members and can now go.
Q. When did your disillusionment with NI21 begin?
A. There was huge disillusionment – not so much with the broader politics because I was writing most of that stuff, but I got very disillusioned with Basil on his position with on-the-runs, with him claiming that he knew all about it. It was wrong to put NI21 in a very bad position and I disagreed strongly with him. There were other things like the very late selection of a European candidate, the very late selection of candidates for council and the late announcement of those candidates. Also, I had no input into the party literature or to the campaign – I was given 40 hours' notice that we were filming our election broadcast. There was an executive that wasn't keeping minutes or doing a proper agenda for meetings. All of those things were pointing to a wide disfunctionality in the party. Then the decision to redesignate 36 hours before polls opened, and then you build in the rumours against the party leader.
Q. If Basil had stood down would you have stayed?
A. Had he stepped aside and focused purely on clearing his name it would have left me in a much better position. But when he appointed a new executive and I felt there was no support for us to continue (the investigation into allegations relating to Mr McCrea), it was at that point that my position over the month of June became completely untenable.
Q. Some people have said you wanted to take over as party leader so you tried to blacken Basil's name?
A. It is absolutely preposterous. I wouldn't do that. If you look at the pressure I have been under over the past two months, why would I want to do that? Some people like to buy into some conspiracy theory but that is just a nonsense.
Q. Did you want to be the European election candidate?
A. I would have. I always maintained right throughout and even after we made the selection that you needed to run your best- known candidate. The candidate should have been either Basil or I. It was a huge risk running a relatively unknown candidate with an unknown brand.
Q. What are you planning to do now?
A. I am going to stay an independent unionist MLA for South Down. I am going to focus on continuing to be a good, active constituency representative for the people of South Down. I will still be out presenting the values and agenda that I wrote for NI21 about wanting to see a normal society, a Government opposition and a tolerant, inclusive, pluralist pro-Union voice in the assembly.
Q. If NI21 was your idea, your agenda, your policies, why did you let Basil lead the party?
A. It was supposed to be more of a joint leadership but Basil moved away from that. Basil's ego was never going to let me be party leader.
Q. So Basil bullied you into letting him be leader?
A. He didn't bully me. It was a fight I didn't bother having because I knew Basil doesn't really do being number two.
Q. Do you now regret leaving the UUP?
A. No. I left on a point of principle. Basil left because he had nowhere else to go. We were heading towards unionist unity and I think that is fundamentally bad for Northern Ireland.
Q. You and Basil were very close friends. Will you ever resurrect that friendship?
A. We are still on businesslike terms. I had a long chat with him this week to finalise my departure. Basil has talents, but they are not in leading a party because there is too much organisational stuff. We will never be friends again, but if we bumped into each other in the corridor we would certainly say hello.
Q. How has this affected you personally?
A. It has been the most toxic and poisonous experience of my life, but I was never going to walk to the other side of the road if someone asked for my help, regardless of the cost to me. I have a big job to rebuild in South Down. One advantage of having a young family is that they are shielded from all of the stuff that is said and written. They are a great leveller when you go home and see their wee faces.