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NI21: Just when did things start going wrong?

The resignation of NI21's sole elected representative may be the final nail in the party's coffin. Alex Kane, for one, thinks it's a shame

Published 31/12/2015

Top guns: NI21 leader Basil McCrea (left) and deputy John McCallister launched the party in a blaze of glory
Top guns: NI21 leader Basil McCrea (left) and deputy John McCallister launched the party in a blaze of glory
Johnny McCarthy

NI21 was launched on June 6, 2013 at The Mac, in Belfast, with around 400 people - many of whom were young, professional and entirely new to politics. It was a very successful launch and, although they would never admit it, the birth of the new party did raise concerns for both the UUP and Alliance.

Yet now, just 30 months later, when you re-read the opening lines from Basil McCrea's speech it sounds like a collection of hostages to fortune: "We are here today to witness the birth of a new political party. A modern, inclusive party for the 21st century, focused on Northern Ireland, committed to the common good and determined to build a better future for all of us. They represent the future for this country. They are passionate, engaged, and talented. They aspire to better. Speaking of which, I want to take this opportunity to thank John McCallister for his speech and his support.

"As some of you will know, John managed to resign first, but he did so on an issue he cares passionately about. He did so knowing the risks. Not all politicians are the same. We need more politicians like John, people of courage, people of conviction, people of principle. In fact, we need a new political party full of people like John. The old grey men of the 20th century parties will not agree. They rarely agree to anything."

However, McCrea (56) and McCallister (43), both former members of a 20th century party, had a spectacular falling out on the eve of the Euro/local council elections on May 21, 2014 (when McCallister described the party as "dysfunctional"); NI21 failed to break the 2% barrier in those elections (with only one candidate, Johnny McCarthy, elected); Tina McKenzie, the party chair and Euro candidate, resigned before the polls had closed on May 22; serious accusations of "inappropriate behaviour" were levelled against McCrea on polling day (he strenuously denied them); McCallister resigned from the party in July; supporters of McCrea and McCallister waged an online war against each other during the summer of 2014; most of the party's former candidates have now left the party, along with the bulk of the original membership; the party didn't field any candidates in this year's general election; and when questioned about the future of NI21 McCrea responds with nothing more than "watch this space".

On Tuesday morning, councillor Johnny McCarthy - the only person, so far, elected on an NI21 ticket - resigned from the party. The fact that he's also the party's deputy leader, replacing McCallister a year ago, only adds to the embarrassment.

He had contacted me on December 16 to see if I would be free for a chat after Christmas, but didn't want to "ruin the surprise" for me. The surprise - which wasn't really a surprise at all to many observers - came in a Facebook post: "After a long period of consideration I have decided to leave NI21. I feel I can work better outside of the party. Some people may wonder why I have stayed as long as I did and it is because I fully believed in the idea of NI21 and the need for a party that is non-sectarian and promotes the use of evidence to create policy and not ideology. I do regret having to come to this decision, but it is the right thing for me to do."

He may, at some point, give a more detailed explanation for his departure, yet it's hard to avoid the conclusion that he has put the final nail in the NI21 coffin.

Indeed, the whole saga has turned into a very convoluted party political whodunnit - The Curious Case of NI21: And Then There Were None. Just over two years ago, there were hundreds of people linked to NI21, particularly on social media. Today, even the albatrosses and vultures steer clear of the wreckage.

If there are any constituency associations still active, they are keeping well below the radar. There don't appear to be any official spokespeople. For months, now, their website has had a notice saying, "rebooting, be back soon". The policy bank that was promised in June and December 2013 is still pretty empty. There has been no conference since 2013. A few months from the Assembly election and no candidates have been named. So, to all intents and purposes, the party seems to exist in name only.

Does it really matter, though? Within a matter of months it already had the look of a vanity project about it: and in interviews following her resignation Tina McKenzie confirmed that internal tensions had been obvious very early on.

In January 2014, one of the founding members told me: "Basil and John are discovering that they can't work together. This is going to end badly. Basil wants to be loved by the Press - that's all that matters to him. John wants policy, even if that means putting off potential voters. I'm beginning to regret my involvement in this." Within months, he had left.

Every farce, of course, has a hint of tragedy about it; and the tragedy in this case is that so many people - and there were, potentially, tens of thousands of them - who had their hopes built up about "something new and something different in local politics" had all of those hopes dashed. Dashed quickly and dashed brutally.

The one chance they were given to vote for NI21, in May 2014, was overshadowed by a huge internal bust-up and an alleged scandal (although they still gathered around 11,000 votes). Other than McCrea himself - and he has still to confirm his intentions - it seems unlikely, albeit not impossible, that there will be NI21 candidates contesting next year's Assembly elections. In other words, the NI21 electoral/political "moment" probably has come and gone.

And that is a pity. There was a genuine excitement in the air when NI21 was launched, a sense that we were witnessing the birth of Northern Ireland's first genuinely post-conflict party. The people at that launch were, mostly, young and new to politics and the ones I interviewed really did believe that they were on the verge of "something very big". More important, they wanted to play a part.

Most of them have moved on: fed up, angry and convinced that all politicians, even those claiming to offer something new, are just self-serving, ego-driven, divisive wasters. And it will take more than a "cool" name and fancy-pants social media graphics and one-liners to lure them back to party politics again - let alone back to the polling station.

Johnny McCarthy's Facebook page is headed with a quote from Samuel Beckett: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." McCarthy may have finished off NI21, yet that advice from Beckett could still inspire someone else to try again and to do it better than NI21 did. Let's face it, they could hardly do worse.

  • Liam Clarke gave me more useful guidance over the years than he probably realised. His was the voice of reason. A superb journalist and a generous man: I will miss him.

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