Tina McKenzie lifts lid on NI21 blackmail, conspiracies and a toxic leadership feud
Former NI21 candidate Tina McKenzie has revealed she met Chief Constable George Hamilton to discuss a possible plot to blackmail her before a European election.
The meeting in 2014 emerged as Mrs McKenzie broke her two-year silence on the collapse of the party on the eve of polling amid allegations of sexual misconduct by leader Basil McCrea.
In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the west Belfast-born businesswoman backed Mr McCrea's claim that he was the victim of a conspiracy to destroy his political career.
She also detailed the "horrifically bad" relationship between Mr McCrea and the party's deputy leader John McCallister.
Mrs McKenzie revealed that a man who had previously been associated with the party contacted her in April 2014.
She said: "He told me he had got me 'checked out' by a friend on the police and had my husband's family in England checked out by a friend in the Metropolitan Police, and he had found nothing on us. I was horrified."
In early May - fewer than three weeks before the European and local council elections - she received a phone call from the same man. It followed rumours that spread on social media about Basil McCrea's alleged conduct. "He said he had complaints about Basil McCrea and women," Mrs McKenzie said. "He said he was going to the papers. I told him to go to the police if he had complaints.
"He told me it was the end of my campaign and he said he would put it on the internet.
"He said, 'Your campaign is over'. He also said, 'All of this can go away'. I said I was going to end the call. I thought that it was blackmail, but now in hindsight, I think someone just wanted to get rid of Basil."
Mrs McKenzie, Mr McCrea and Mr McCallister met Mr Hamilton, then an Assistant Chief Constable, at PSNI headquarters in east Belfast on May 6, 2014.
"Mr Hamilton was very supportive," Mrs McKenzie said. "He asked me if there had been a complaint (against Basil McCrea), but there hadn't. He took it very seriously but advised me to keep going with my campaign."
It is understood that the PSNI has investigated the issues raised at the meeting but that no one has been charged in relation to the allegations.
The police confirmed to the Belfast Telegraph earlier this week that they were examining a complaint from Mr McCrea that he had been the victim of a criminal conspiracy - a claim supported by Mrs McKenzie.
"It was definitely a conspiracy," she said, "but I don't know who was behind it. I will give the police any help I can in their investigation."
In a wide-ranging interview Mrs McKenzie, a recruitment company boss and mother-of-three, also explained how she became involved in the formation of NI21 a few months after returning to Northern Ireland from England in 2013.
"The catalyst was the flag protests - the frustration and pain of communities," she said. "People didn't have a lot of hope, and there was a lack of political leadership.
"Most businesspeople I knew told me I was mad, not to touch politics with a bargepole, but when I came back and saw the state of the place, I knew I wanted to get involved."
She attended a meeting organised by Mr McCrea and Mr McCallister at the La Mon Hotel near Belfast in April 2013.
It was the same night that former party worker Ashleigh Murray, then aged 23, later claimed that Mr McCrea had made sexual advances towards her.
Mrs McKenzie said she heard and saw "nothing untoward". It was during the two-day event that she told Mr McCrea that her father, Harry Fitzsimons, was a former member of the IRA.
"It didn't concern him," she said. "It was never a problem."
She also detailed the increasingly toxic relationship between Mr McCrea and Mr McCallister, and what she saw as the latter's antipathy towards her.
"The relationship between Basil and John was horrifically bad. They could not work together, even from the earliest days," Mrs McKenzie told this newspaper.
"I did try to bring them together, to have a serious think about the impact on the party of their bad relationship. There was always underlying friction.
"John was uncomfortable with me. He made it clear that he was unhappy that the party executive voted for me to be the European candidate. He said it should be him or Basil, but Basil didn't want to be the candidate."
Mrs McKenzie also lifted the lid on the shocking events that led to the collapse of the party.
She said the rumours about Mr McCrea's alleged sexual misconduct towards women had persisted in the run-up to the election, although no complaint had been received.
Matters came to a head at a dramatic late-night meeting on May 14, 2014, a week before the election and the eve of the party's manifesto launch.
"John rang me at 10pm and said there was a very, very serious complaint against Basil and that I would be absolutely shocked," Mrs McKenzie said. "He said it was horrific. I rang the entire executive, except Basil, and called them to my house in Belfast at 11pm. There were six of us. It was a tough meeting. John would not tell us the nature of the complaint except that it was sexual. He would not tell us the person's name. I said several times that he should go to the police."
The PSNI confirmed no complaint has ever been received in relation to this allegation.
Two days before the election, the party executive backed a move by Mrs McKenzie and Mr McCrea to drop NI21's "unionist" designation, against strong opposition from Mr McCallister.
The night before the poll, he gave a media interview branding the party "dysfunctional" and 24 hours later, just before voting ended, Tina McKenzie and three other members of the executive resigned. "We knew the vehicle was poisoned and that the dysfunction between John and Basil was never going away," she said.
"We agreed not to talk until there was a full, independent investigation. We all acted with integrity. Basil was destroyed, Ashleigh was destroyed, people's hopes and dreams were destroyed.
"It was like a death. I was grieving for the party and the council candidates. I felt that I had failed all of the people in the party, all the people who had voted.
"I even felt I had failed Basil and John in some way because I couldn't fix it. I have never failed at anything before - I'm very resilient - but this was beyond my control. I thought, 'If this is politics here, I'm done'."
Mrs McKenzie retreated to her home but found that her tumultuous year was about to get a lot worse. "I focused on the family - we had deaths and serious illness to deal with," she said.
"My husband, aged 42 at the time, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in September 2014. He had an operation and is now totally recovered and in the clear, but it was horrific. That's the stuff that is important in life. You have to put political party issues into perspective."
Mrs McKenzie also told how she had "no feelings" towards Mr McCallister. "I have no relationship with him at all," she said. "I think that he could have handled it all differently."
She remains on good terms with Mr McCrea and said she was pleased that the report by Assembly Standards Commissioner Douglas Bain had cleared him of any wrongdoing.
"The report shows the dirty nature of Northern Ireland politics and that saddens me," she added.
"Basil is fastidious about detail, and that helped him to clear his name. He has a very strong family and a wonderful partner, Jill. People supported him behind the scenes. Some of us worried about his mental health as the pressure on him was horrendous.
"He is a friend and I wish him well in the election. I think he has a good chance because people on the ground love Basil. I think he was naive and trusting - he wanted to help everyone. He is still enthused by politics. His life is politics."
And it seems that Mrs McKenzie may still harbour political ambitions of her own.
"I'm not ruling out a return to party politics," she said. "Three parties have approached me to take a role. I've had discussions but have made no decision about that. I don't see a vehicle that is screaming out for me to join.
"I'm involved in lots of aspects of public life, like the Centre for Democracy and Peace, along with Lord Alderdice, the Social Investment Fund and the government's Steps to Success programme, which is helping 10,000 job-seekers.
"You don't need to be in a party to make a difference. Sticking on a rosette is a different thing to actually helping people. I want to make Northern Ireland a better place."