Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Alex Kane: NI21 - the end of the bromance and vanity project

Mr McCrea (right) and Mr McCallister before the split
Mr McCrea (right) and Mr McCallister before the split

Basil McCrea and John McCallister were more than just political friends and colleagues. They were more than just two men who shared a common belief in a new, friendlier version of unionism. They were more than just two men making common cause against most of the members and elected representatives of the Ulster Unionists, their old party.

They were best friends. Blood brothers. Mates. The political equivalent of Ant and Dec: two likeable, clubbable, media savvy "blokes" who seemed able to reach parts of the electorate mainstream, traditional unionism couldn't reach. They went to GAA matches, Sinn Fein conferences, Gay Pride parades and equal marriage demonstrations. They took the UUP brickbats, arguing that their outreach would reap electoral dividends.

Yet neither was able to win the leadership of the party. McCrea lost heavily to Tom Elliott in 2010, while McCallister lost by an even bigger majority to Mike Nesbitt in 2012. So a parting of the ways was probably inevitable.

Neither seemed comfortable any more, particularly as Nesbitt appeared to drift too far to the right and too close to the DUP for their liking. From April 2012 until March 2013 it was obvious that they were looking for a plausible exit strategy and they grabbed it when the UUP and DUP agreed to a joint candidate in the Mid Ulster by-election.

Being mere backbench independents was never going to be enough for these two. They wanted to prove that there was a huge swathe of non-voters and next generation voters who would be attracted to a vehicle that moved away from the us-and-them agenda and offered a coherent vision for a "united" post-conflict NI.

And they both believed that a vehicle led by them – a new Assembly party eligible for funds and appealing to the media – was the only way ahead. Yet from the start many believed it was a mere vanity project.

One former UUP colleague claimed that "two men who can't work with anyone else have set up a shrine to themselves". Yet there was an undeniable buzz last June when almost 500 turned up for the launch of NI21. They were there to see and support the 'Jasil' project and to confirm that they, too, wanted something new.

That launch spooked the political establishment, particularly Alliance and the UUP. And yet that launch offered nothing beyond feelgood rhetoric and smiley faces, albeit many of them young and enthusiastic. There was no hint of anything resembling policy.

It was at that moment, too, that the first cracks began to appear. McCallister believes in strategy and he believes in setting out very specific positions. McCrea doesn't. He likes to play it very safe, never adopting a position that would scare potential supporters. Unlike McCallister, he believed that the strength of his personality – his charisma, if you like – would be enough.

Tina McKenzie – interviewed in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph – said that relations between the two men had been soured for months: "They hardly speak, and when they do they can't agree on anything. They disagreed on the election campaign. They have very different ideas about nearly everything you could mention. They just never agree – full stop."

What was becoming clear was that while the two best friends knew what they agreed about, the failures of traditional unionism, they were finding it difficult to agree on what to offer as an alternative. The first public concrete signs of their difficulties emerged after their annual conference last November when McCallister did little to disguise his continuing concerns about the lack of policies and election strategy. It was also at that conference the first signs of Basil and John camps emerged.

People close to both men voiced concern about what one described as "their car crash relationship", while others said that McCrea had "ensured that John would not be their Euro candidate". Even watching their body language in the Assembly told you all you needed to know: they were a couple in name only, staying together for the sake of the voters.

Their relationship was what NI21 was built around. Without that there could be no party. The nature of their fall-out was almost Shakespearean (comic and tragic), leaving bodies, hopes, broken candidates and a shattered friendship behind. They weren't able to lead NI21 together and neither can do it singly. Duke Senior (As You Like It) spoke their personal and political epitaph: "True is it that we have seen better days."

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