Belfast Telegraph

NI21 fails to dent the polls as party facing implosion

NI21's candidate Tina McKenzie
NI21's candidate Tina McKenzie
Alex Maskey with Sinn Fein's Mairtin O Muilleoir after his win
SDLP Gerard Diver tops the poll in the Waterside with colleague Brenda Stevenson
DUP candidate Maurice Devenney (Derry) and Independent candidate Paul Gallagher

By Noel McAdam

Crisis-hit NI21's election hopes crumbled last night as the party appeared close to collapse.

Northern Ireland's newest political group seemed to have failed to gain a foothold in local government – days after signalling it was changing its Stormont designation from 'unionist' to 'other', like Alliance and the Green Party.

It was difficult to guage, however, whether allegations against leader Basil McCrea had emerged in time to impact on supporters turning out across NI.

But the party's most high-profile candidate, businesswoman Tina McKenzie, polled just 256 first preference votes in the Balmoral district of Belfast.

Yet one of its candidates came close, Christina Dobson in Lisburn and Castlereagh, who eventually lost out in the final stretch to Alliance.

While other individual NI21 candidates including David Honeyford and Christina Dobson in the new Lisburn/Castlereagh council and former journalist Gary Grattan in the Three Mile Water area of Antrim/Newtownabbey, polled better, there was disappointment overall.

Coleraine candidate Chris McCaw, however, said he was resigning because the party had been "torpedoed" by the events of the week when deputy leader John McCallister attacked it as "crazy and dysfunctional".

And there were calls for a meeting of the entire party membership in the weeks ahead.

Rank-and-file member Mike Megaw said on Facebook: "In the coming weeks it will be clear where the fault lies for the current Executive in-fighting and subsequent resignations.

"From the ashes, those that are faultless must return to call a full membership meeting, where the election of a new Executive and leader, if that is required, is made.

"The NI21 name must live on and the fantastic talent we have in the party retained to take the party forward and help it mature with fresh input."

Among the remaining smaller parties, others fared better as the first day of counting came to a close last night.

Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice had gained four seats – Timothy Gaston in Ballymena, one of the youngest councillors at 24, Andrew Girvin in Lisburn and Castlereagh council, Sharon McKillop in the Causeway Coast and Glens area and David Hollis in Macedon, Newtownabbey.

And there were projections that the hardline party – with Mr Allister, who was the party's candidate in the European election, predicting that TUV could gain more than 10 seats by close of play today.

Votes for the European election will be counted on Monday.

Progressive Unionist Party leader Billy Hutchinson gained a seat in the Court district of Belfast where he topped the poll while former independent Russell Wotton topped the poll for the party in the Coleraine district of the Causeway Coast and Glens authority.

And Ukip's Henry Reilly topped the poll in the Mournes district of the Newry, Mournes and Down council with 1,964 first preferences.

Gerry Carroll of the People Before Profit organisation won a seat in the Black Mountain district of west Belfast on the first count, close behind Sinn Fein candidates Steven Corr and Janice Austin.

It was a day when many veterans were returned for the new era of local government –when the 11 new councils finally take over from the present 26 from next April.

But with all parties committed to ending 'double jobbing' there was a huge range of fresh faces – and some political combacks.

Among them was former DUP MLA Paul Berry, now an indepenent, who won a seat on the 'ABC' – Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon – council, coming just a few hundred votes behind veteran Ulster Unionist Jim Speers in the Cusher district.

Among the big party performances there were individual triumphs.

Blind former champion water skiier Janet Gray was elected to represent the DUP in the Downshire East ward of Lisburn and Castlereagh super council.

And there were bitter personal defeats within the bigger picture contests also, such as former senior Ulster Unionist Fred Cobain – a long-serving Belfast councillor – who was eliminated in the Carrick Castle district of the Mid and East Antrim council. Tight battles for the last seats in some of the new districts are expected today – with the prospect of recounts.

'We have all been betrayed by the leadership'

Gary Grattan: NI21 candidate in Threemilewater (Antrim/Newtownabbey)

"People have asked me if people who voted for NI21 feel betrayed. What I've been saying is we have all been betrayed.

The candidates have been betrayed by the leadership. Poor leadership, poor communication and no consultation.

We're bitterly disappointed and completely shell-shocked, to be honest, at the developments of the last 48 hours. We'll never know how we would have done without the fiasco. That's the terrible thing."

Roger Duncan

NI21 candidate in Downshire West (Lisburn/ Castlereagh)

"It's not ideal on the eve of an election but I believe our candidates in Lagan Valley and Castlereagh are very resolute. We stood for NI21 because we believe in its core values. I don't think as candidates we should be tarred with the same brush in terms of our leaders and what's happened. I stood because I wanted to see a change. I don't want our children growing up in a society where there is a 'them and us' attitude. Unfortunately, what's happened at the top seems to have had an impact. The timing hasn't helped us."

Ben Matthews in Botanic (Belfast)

"What is happening with the leadership is not important.

"This is about the people who have come out and mobilised to support us throught the election.

"They came out and canvassed for us for change.

"All those involved with NI21 want fresh politics that is better."

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