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NI21 a noble project beset by controversy from the off

By Yvette Shapiro

Published 15/03/2016

Basil McCrea and John McCallister at NI21’s launch at The Mac in 2013
Basil McCrea and John McCallister at NI21’s launch at The Mac in 2013

Over coffee in The Mac theatre in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter, Basil McCrea revealed his intention to quit politics.

The location was significant: it was here, on June 6, 2013, that his ill-fated political party was launched with great fanfare, high hopes and big promises.

Less than three years later, the dream has died and the party appears to be finished, along with Mr McCrea's nine-year career in politics.

NI21 grew out of the friendship and shared ideals of Mr McCrea and the South Down MLA John McCallister. They both resigned from the Ulster Unionist Party in February 2013 and spent four months recruiting followers and brainstorming ideas for what they described as "a modern, inclusive party for the 21st century". It attracted many young members, from both sides of the community, who responded to NI21's approach of "fresh politics" and no sectarian labels.

West Belfast-born businesswoman Tina McKenzie, who comes from a republican background, was appointed chair before being unveiled as the party's candidate for the 2014 European election. Earlier this month, she told the Belfast Telegraph that behind the scenes, the relationship between leader Mr McCrea and his deputy Mr McCallister was "horrific". She revealed: "They could not work together... there was always underlying friction and it never got better."

Shortly before the May 2014 elections, the party started to implode, following allegations of sexual impropriety levelled at Mr McCrea. On the eve of voting, Mr McCallister branded the party "dysfunctional" after the leadership decided to abandon its "unionist" designation. He later resigned, as did Ms McKenzie.

NI21 failed to break the 2% barrier at the polls and only one candidate was elected - Johnny McCarthy for Lisburn and Castlereagh District Council. He resigned from the party last Christmas. An official inquiry into allegations of misconduct by Mr McCrea was launched in summer 2014 by the Assembly's Commissioner for Standards, Douglas Bain. The report, published two weeks ago, cleared the Lagan Valley MLA of any wrongdoing.

Mr McCrea said the party had not been collecting membership dues for some time and that it will be up to the party executive to decide its future, although it may continue to exist as a "pressure group".

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