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NI21 party rejects 'unionist' label, will redesignate in Assembly

By Steven Alexander

Unionists no longer have an overall majority in the Assembly after NI21 announced that it would redesignate as 'other'.

Just two days before the European and local elections, NI21 revealed that it will become the third Assembly party to forgo a unionist or nationalist label, following in the wake of Alliance and the Greens.

However, questions were raised last night over whether the rules governing the Assembly allowed for such a move.

And the 11th-hour decision ahead of tomorrow’s elections means the party will still be classified as ‘unionist’ by Stormont when voters hit the polls.

NI21’s European candidate Tina McKenzie welcomed the move on Twitter. “We reject 20th century labels in a 21st century world,” she wrote.

However, the move has caused some anger and confusion in the ranks. It is understood that a phone call from party leader Basil McCrea to inform candidates of the decision caught some by complete surprise.

At least one unconsulted candidate began canvassing voters last night as a unionist, but was unsure if he had finished as something else.

The lateness of the decision may also annoy postal voters who cast their vote believing it was for an unambiguously unionist party.

Party leader Basil McCrea said the decision had been taken at a party executive strategy meeting yesterday evening.

“When we originally formed the party, we designated ‘unionist’ because we wanted to be open and transparent on the constitutional position,” he said.

“However, as we have engaged with the electorate over the last number of months, it's clear to us that using the term ‘unionist’ doesn't just mean someone who is pro-United Kingdom, and therefore is confusing.”

Once NI21’s move is complete, it will mean that unionists have exactly half of the Assembly’s 108 seats.

With 54 designated unionists and 54 nationalists or other MLAs, it means that there will not be a unionist majority in a Stormont government for the first time since the foundation of Northern Ireland in 1921.

However, communal designations mean key decisions can still only be agreed if they have cross-community support.

The system was introduced as a safeguard to ensure that neither unionists nor nationalists could dominate Stormont with a simple majority of votes.

However, critics argue it has entrenched sectarianism and stifled decision-making.

NI21 said their move would be in place for the elections following this week’s poll. But the procedure for MLAs to designate takes place on the first meeting of a new Assembly — after elections.

The rules also state that MLAs belonging to a party may only change designation if they join a different party or cease to be a member of any party.

Unionist commentator Alex Kane described the move as messy coming so close to tomorrow’s Euro and council polls.

“It smacks of a certain amount of desperation,” he added.

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