Belfast Telegraph

NI21 rocked by founders' rift

The leader of Northern Ireland's newest political party said he has been left disappointed and saddened in the wake of a devastating attack by his deputy and long time friend and ally.

A very public eve-of-election rift has developed between NI21 leader Basil McCrea and deputy leader John McCallister after the latter branded a party decision to depart from its unionist designation at Stormont as "crazy".

Mr McCallister said the way the matter was handled at a meeting of the party's executive last night, just two days before the European and local government elections, was a sign of "dysfunctionality".

Mr McCrea said Mr McCallister owed the party an explanation for his comments.

"I am disappointed and a little sad that this was the way things were handled," he said.

Mr McCrea and Mr McCallister, both sitting Assembly members, formed the party last year after an acrimonious split from the Ulster Unionist Party.

As many Stormont votes are conducted on a cross-community basis, MLAs are required to designate themselves as either unionist, nationalist or other.

Initially the NI21 co-founders, whose close relationship at Stormont prompted some to dub them the Starsky and Hutch of the Assembly chamber, said they would retain their unionist status.

But at last night's executive meeting a majority voted that the party should adopt an "other" designation for future Assembly elections.

In an interview with the News Letter in the wake of the meeting, Mr McCallister made his feelings clear.

"The way in which the (NI21) executive was handled points to a lot of the dysfunctionality in the party," he said.

"There was no agenda sent out. This was organised this afternoon; I was literally told to come down from my constituency to Belfast to do it, with no idea what it was about."

He added: "I've no idea where it leaves us."

Lagan Valley MLA Mr McCrea said he had not spoken to South Down representative Mr McCallister about his comments and did not intend to until after the elections.

"We will deal with the issues with John after the election," he said.

Asked if Mr McCallister had a future in the party, Mr McCrea said: "The issue will be that some explanations are required and we will do that and, on the basis of the explanations, we will see what happens."

He added: "I will talk to him at the appropriate time in a mature way and we will see what we can resolve."

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