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NI21's only councillor is elected deputy leader as election looms

By Rebecca Black

The only person ever elected as an NI21 representative has been chosen as its deputy leader at a dismally attended party meeting.

And the party leader Basil McCrea refused to confirm that NI21 candidates would stand in next May's General Election.

New deputy leader and Lisburn councillor Johnny McCarthy won the support of the estimated 40 members who attended the party's annual general meeting in Belfast.

Media were banned from attending the meeting which took place at the Metropolitan Arts Centre on Saturday.

The meeting was the first of the party, which has been in freefall since it was hit by scandal earlier this year.

Former party worker Ashleigh Murray (23) made allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour against Mr McCrea.

As divisions at the top of the party deepened in the aftermath, deputy leader John McCallister resigned from the party, although Mr McCrea has insisted that he had done nothing wrong.

NI21 went on to perform poorly in the European and local government elections, only managing to get one person elected to a council - Mr McCarthy in Lisburn.

Speaking after Saturday's event, Mr McCrea described it as a "business procedural meeting".

"We had certain things we had to do, talk to the membership with whom we have been engaging over a number of months and this was just letting people know what we are planning to do in the future," he said.

"We had a vacancy and I am very pleased to say that Councillor Johnny McCarthy was nominated and overwhelmingly endorsed to be the deputy leader."

Mr McCrea said his party has had "a terrible time".

"There is no getting away from that, it's been awful.

"You talk about being bad, it was spread as a supernova so a period of reflection was not inappropriate," he said. "One of the things that came out from the discussion with the members today was that they wanted more time and more engagement so they could talk through some policy issues and priorities. We have learnt a lot, we intend to learn more and we intend to engage more with our party members."

Former deputy leader Mr McCallister claimed earlier this year that there was no future for the party, but Mr McCrea insisted that there will be.

However, he did not give many details and would not confirm whether the party will stand any candidates at next year's Westminster elections.

"We will be having an annual conference in the new year, the timing of that will depend on our election strategy - that I can't comment on at this stage," he said.

Meanwhile, 24-year-old Mr McCarthy said the party's engagement with members recently had been "overwhelmingly positive".

"There are obviously issues the membership have with, we have addressed those issues," he said.

"But they are still on board because, as I have said on countless occasions before, the message of NI21 is still the same and there is still a thirst for that sort of politics in Northern Ireland going forward."

Background

NI21 was set up by MLAs Basil McCrea and John McCallister, after they quit the UUP in 2013. It ran a candidates in this year's council elections and former party chair Tina McKenzie stood for Europe. However, they polled poorly after the party switched its designation from 'unionist' to 'other' on the eve of the vote. Later, a former party worker Ashleigh Murray (23) made allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour about Mr McCrea. Deputy leader John McCallister resigned over the matter, and it is being probed by the Assembly's commissioner for standards.

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