John McCallister: 'Basil brought down NI21. We weren't focused on politics'
One year on from a fallout that saw him leaving the NI21 party, Deborah McAleese asks MLA John McCallister about the future.
Q. What's next for John McCallister when he loses his Assembly seat?
A. I don't think John McCallister is going to lose his Assembly seat. But thanks for the vote of confidence. I certainly have a battle on my hands but I'm looking forward to the campaign and getting out around South Down. What people in South Down and across Northern Ireland need are independent voices in the Assembly challenging the Executive and the Northern Ireland Government.
Q. Over a year ago everything was rosy. You had all the excitement and promise around NI21 and then it imploded. Where did it all go wrong, John?
A. When someone makes an allegation, there is a duty for that allegation to be taken seriously and investigated robustly. That is what I sought to do at every turn.
Q. You're talking about the allegations of inappropriate behaviour against the party leader Basil McCrea?
A. Yes. I was so critical of NI21 and the executive at the time because there was frustration in trying to get an independent and robust investigation. One thing I will never regret is standing up for young women making an allegation against a politician. The Standards Commissioner is still investigating this. I just wanted some measure of closure for all of those involved in it. I probably paid a heavy price in that a party I had co-founded and written most of the stuff for - the values, the ethos etc - I had to walk away from.
Q. But were relations between you and Basil not shaky before these allegations?
A. I'm quite sure not everyone in the Bel Tel loves everyone else in the Bel Tel. At times there are some difficulties in any relationship. Those difficulties between us were nothing compared to the allegations a young woman made about Basil McCrea. That had to be dealt with. Any difficulties between Basil and me were completely separate to my duty of care to a former employee making an allegation.
Q. What were the difficulties between you and Basil before then?
A. They were just over-managing our first election campaign, late selection of candidates, when they were going to be announced, the literature we put out, issues like that. But those were just normal day-to-day office politics. I had an idea and he had contrary views. But that was not particularly causing huge problems in anything other than some tension between us. The other, the allegations of sexual inappropriate behaviour, blew NI21 apart.
Q. So the difficulties between you before the allegation weren't bad enough to be concerned about the future of NI21?
A. No, we weren't even a year old. But in the early part of 2014 we lost direction. For example, we were in the wrong place on the on-the-runs.
Q. Who lost direction? You or Basil?
A. Basil. Without a doubt. We weren't focused on doing the politics. It was frustrating but it wasn't critical. It became critical when the allegations started to bubble up around Basil and his conduct. Basil has never addressed the allegations publicly and has hidden behind legal action.
Q. So Basil brought down NI21?
Q. But even before this were you the one holding the party together?
A. Basil was out doing things that interested Basil, like graphics, literature, websites. I mean, I think in the first year we went through six different website designs. It was stuff like that, instead of focusing on politics. Then you get caught out on things like the OTRs. There was a catalogue of stupid, amateurish mistakes made. But none of that was detracting me from doing my role. And then came the allegations.
Q. Did Basil bully you into letting him become leader?
A. Basil's ego was never going to allow me to be leader. But that sort of schoolboy type politics didn't interest me. I could have quite happily lived with no title in the project.
Q. What's your relationship like now? You used to be good friends. He was at your wedding.
A. He was at the evening party, yes. But so were a lot of people. We would have been close friends. Our relationship now is more or less non-existent.
Q. Do you think you let a lot of voters down by walking away from NI21?
A. That's the tragedy of the NI21 story, the voters that were let down. Only last week at the Balmoral Show a woman stopped me and said: "I think you were really on to something, but hopefully you can continue that as an independent." And that is what I am hoping to do. That's why, as an independent, I continue to make the case for normal politics. It's why I resigned from the UUP. I don't agree with election pacts. We need to move to the politics of ideas and policy and people driving an agenda, rather than just a tribal headcount.
Q. Are you bitter about NI21?
A. There was a golden opportunity for promoting pro-Union, sensible politics and that may have been lost for a while. But there is a chance there through independent candidates. The Northern Ireland Assembly needs the naughty corner of independents and the naughty corner needs more people in it. If you took us away, there wouldn't be much scrutiny done. It is the independents like myself who scrutinise the Northern Ireland Government and tell them where they are going wrong. We can't have this cosy cabal running Stormont.
Q. But as an independent you are a one-man band. How can you make a difference?
A. If our party system of making changes was so successful would you or most of your readers be so dissatisfied with the Northern Ireland Executive? People are just so disillusioned with politics here. We have five parties in government and the only opposition is coming from independents. If you didn't have us guys in there you wouldn't have me talking about the voluntary exit scheme. I mean, we are borrowing £700m to do something that if we had put a recruitment freeze on in 2011 we wouldn't need it. We are stuck on welfare reform. Who is standing up for the working people? The families who get up and go to work and maybe pay expensive childcare because the Government hasn't put enough in place. Who is standing up for those people who have made choices to work hard and pay their way? We need an official opposition to scrutinise and challenge.
Q. Do you regret leaving the UUP?
A. No. It would have been easier still being in the UUP. But I don't agree with electoral pacts. What it does to our politics is put the flag up and put your side there and my side here. That is fundamentally bad for Northern Ireland because it continues to perpetuate the us and them, and that is not good for politics. We should be normalising. I believe in the Union. I believe we should be building support for the Union, not making unionism this narrow form that it is only open to one religious group with the exclusion of the other. That is not what a pluralist, modern, diverse United Kingdom should look like.
Q. Is politics in Northern Ireland more sectarian now than it was after the Good Friday Agreement?
A. I don't know if it is more sectarian, but I would say there is less generosity in our politics. As a political insider I sometimes look at it and go how on Earth did we do Good Friday? I don't see any spirit of generosity. Almost everything seems to be carved up.
Q. Do you think you could have done a better job as leader of the UUP?
A. Than Mike? I don't know. I suspect it would have looked and felt very different. Would it have had two Westminster seats? I don't know because I wouldn't have been entering a pact with the DUP. I would have liked to think at least it would have been a strong, robust opposition and looking like an alternative. The problem with being in the Executive is you are part of the problem, you are part of a failing Executive.
Q. Is Mike Nesbitt doing a good job?
A. He is taking a different direction than I would have gone. I wouldn't have gone near the electoral pact stuff. There would have been no doubt it would have been a stand-alone party.
Q. If you weren't in politics would you vote UUP now?
A. It would depend in which constituency I lived in. I mean, in the recent Westminster election, if I had lived in East Belfast, I would have voted for Naomi Long. It could depend where I lived. I would have no objection whatsoever voting for Danny Kinahan. But in South Down in the next Assembly elections I will be voting for John McCallister, Independent Unionist.
Q. What is your view on the Ashers case?
A. The judge has said they were wrong, so I respect the judgment. My biggest regret in all of this is that we have managed to pit the Christian or faith community against effectively the LGBT community, even though in places there's an overlap. There are many gay Christians.
Q. Do you agree with Paul Givan (DUP MLA) that there is a "hierarchy of rights" and that gay rights are above religious rights?
A. No. This idea that Christians in Northern Ireland are being badly done by is a nonsense. Go and look at Syria, or China, across the Middle East, where you see real discrimination against Christians. This idea we are not tolerating Christians at any level is nuts. I am a Christian and a regular church-goer. I don't need it to dominate every political thought. The problem is that you have politicians, mainly DUP, who talk about homosexuality being an abomination and equivalent to paedophilia. That's not the language to use. Pitting Christians and gays against each other is not right. The way it is being handled by Paul and others is not helpful.
Q. What about Mr Givan's conscience clause?
A. The way it is drafted is totally nuts. All of the explanatory notes are almost exclusively about gay people. No sane person looking at that could agree. While we wouldn't accept having something to discriminate against on grounds of race, why do we think it is all right to have something to discriminate against someone on grounds of sexual orientation? It is clearly not.
Q. Could Jim Wells have stayed on as Health Minister?
A. No. To be fair to Jim, I know he has had a very difficult three or four months. I don't think the party should have even asked him to be a Westminster candidate given he was minister of one of the largest and most controversial departments in government. It was pressure that he didn't need. I suppose it was refreshing that, in Northern Ireland, here is a minister who said something that had no factual base and had to pay the price for it.
Q. What type of voters are you trying to attract?
A. As many as possible. About 6,000 of them. Look, I want to go out right across the constituency of South Down and not be thinking: "Well there's no point in stopping here, they won't vote for an independent Unionist." I want to be standing on my nine-year record as an MLA, as someone who could have stayed in the warm fold of a party, but who put principles before position. I am standing for the people of South Down who want to normalise politics, who want to build on the Northern Irish identity. The rest of the UK was disinterested in Northern Ireland in the recent parliamentary elections because it just wasn't relevant to contemporary, 21st century Britain. I would say to the electorate in South Down, you want someone who will stand up and say that the emperor has no clothes. The emperor is clearly wrong on this issue.
Q. Will you leave politics altogether if you aren't elected next year?
A. I'd probably go into journalism. From one reputable job to another. I would hope not. I am realistic enough to know I have a battle on my hands, but I'm up for that. I am up to fight for every last vote and transfer that I can get. I feel I have a good message to give people about normalising our politics here. Win or lose, I want to keep on driving home the message about normalising Northern Ireland's politics.
Q. So you don't see yourself back full-time on the family farm in the future?
A. No. I'm going to win.
Q. Would you ever vote NI21 if you weren't in politics?
A. No. NI21 is dead. It hasn't said anything for a year. It has shifted into I don't know what. I was so disgusted at people not standing up for the rights of women I wouldn't. In life you stick by your principles, your beliefs. You do the right thing, whether it's easy or incredibly difficult, and you will never regret it.