I'm finished with politics, says Basil McCrea - bombshell announcement sounds death knell for NI21
NI21 leader says he has become disillusioned after high profile meltdown of party
The NI21 leader Basil McCrea has told the Belfast Telegraph that he is quitting politics after nine years in the Assembly because he is disillusioned with the political process.
The Lagan Valley MLA has revealed that he won't fight the next Stormont election in May and is looking for a new career in business or public life.
The 56-year-old former Ulster Unionist has also spoken bitterly of his one-time colleague and friend, South Down MLA John McCallister, with whom he founded NI21.
He said: "I will never forgive him for ruining the party, for depriving Northern Ireland of hope and opportunity and for the personal distress that he has caused my family."
Mr McCrea's shock announcement comes less than two weeks after a report by the Assembly standards watchdog Douglas Bain cleared of him of wrongdoing following allegations of sexual misconduct and bullying, complaints passed on to the commissioner by Mr McCallister.
Mr McCrea has claimed that he is the victim of a criminal conspiracy, an allegation currently being examined by the PSNI.
In an exclusive interview at The Mac theatre in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter - the location for the launch of NI21 three years ago - Mr McCrea said that he made his final decision to step down from politics at the weekend. It followed extensive discussions with his family since the publication of the report by the Standards and Privileges Committee.
"Over the past 10 days or so, a number of family members were upset by the reality of politics in Northern Ireland and by the reaction to the report," he said.
"Personally, I can take the rough with the smooth but no man is an island and you have to take on board what family and friends are feeling.
"I am lucky to have such a wonderfully supportive family who will back me all the way. I think a number of them are pleased with my decision to leave politics. There's no doubt the pressure over the past two years was constant, and at times severe. It did have an effect on my health, my relationships and my general wellbeing."
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph two weeks ago, before the report was officially published, Mr McCrea revealed that the allegations made against him - including a claim that he had sexually assaulted a young party worker - had left him suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and had triggered the onset of type 2 diabetes.
He admitted that he felt bruised and exasperated by some of the media coverage of the more lurid aspects of the report.
"I was disappointed that certain parts of the report didn't get the attention they deserved, particularly the issue of conspiracy," he said.
"The report was unequivocal. Ridiculous allegations that were made two years ago have proven to be unfounded, but the entire experience, the delay and the worry, has had an impact on me and on my family.
"I'm not running away, complaining that it's too harsh. I was pleased to have been totally exonerated and I shall leave the Assembly with my head held high. I gave it my all and I'm pleased that I had the opportunity to do so."
Mr McCrea has held his seat in Lagan Valley for nine years. He was elected as an Ulster Unionist, but resigned from the party along with John McCallister, in February 2013. The two went on to set up NI21 later that year. This May's election would have been his first test as an NI21 candidate as well as a test of the electorate's appetite for a politician steeped in controversy. Mr McCrea, however, is confident that he would have retained his seat.
"The reaction on the doorsteps was not negative," he said, revealing that he was still distributing NI21 leaflets in his constituency as recently as last Friday.
"I honestly believe I would have kept my seat. I've worked long and hard and I think I tried to make a difference in politics and not too many politicians can say that.
"But even if I got re-elected I would have been ignored, I wouldn't even have been able to speak much in the Assembly. There's a hard political reality to this decision. It doesn't matter who stands for election because there will be no change of government or of policy. It will just be the two big parties, with the small parties sniping away on the sidelines. Independents are no more than an irritant and the structures are extremely frustrating and will not work.
"You are dead a long time. Why waste your career doing something that doesn't make a difference?" Mr McCrea said that he had no regrets about leaving "a safe political career" in the UUP to launch his own party.
"I'm proud I launched it, proud of what it stood for. It was attacked as a concept from the start, from within and without. Politics is not for the faint-hearted.
"I thought I was offering a fundamental change and a more inclusive, tolerant way forward, which I thought people wanted, but a lot of vested interests don't want change and none of the major parties want change.
"I'm proud of the stance that I took. I believed in NI21, I still believe in NI21.
"One of the greatest moments of my life was the launch of the party here in The Mac. It was seat of the pants stuff and it was fantastic."
Mr McCrea declined to discuss the individual party workers who had made serious allegations about his behaviour. These include Ashleigh Murray who claimed that the MLA had exposed himself and pulled down her tights in a hotel room in 2013, a claim denied by Mr McCrea who was cleared of this and other allegations after an 18-month investigation by Douglas Bain. But he said that he had been naive in his selection of party volunteers.
"There was a certain naivety in my approach to the adoption of party activists. It was probably my single biggest failing, driven by good intentions, to take all comers. My advice to anyone thinking of setting up a political party is to be very reticent about accepting volunteers."
Mr McCrea said that he was content and relaxed about his decision to leave politics and laughed loudly when asked if he would consider returning at a later date, but he is clearly bitter about the breakdown in his relationship with John McCallister who branded the party "dysfunctional" in a media interview the day before the European and council elections in May 2014.
"I didn't pick up the difficulties with John because we had been together as political allies for a very long time," said Mr McCrea. "There were arguments but that was OK because we were friends, but what I didn't realise was that there was a deeper undercurrent. I did my best to accommodate him, to the detriment of myself.
"He should not have destroyed the party and the electoral chances of the candidates on the eve of the election."
Mr McCrea said that he would do his best to help the five party workers affected by his decision to quit and that he would consult with the party executive about its future, although it may become "a pressure group or movement".
He added: "In addition to my family, I feel for the impact on my staff. It's testament to their loyalty and commitment that they have stayed. I'm moving on, I've done all I can."
Mr McCrea said that he now intended to pursue a new career outside of politics, but that he had no "plan B".
He said: "I have a continued interest in science, technology and the arts. I would like to think I can find something that will utilise my skills. I will have the opportunity to engage in a wider debate without being shackled by the politics of Stormont which is very constraining.
"None of us want to be chaff in the wind. We all want to make a difference. I still want to make a contribution, but not in politics because politics in Northern Ireland is not working."