Final death knell for NI21 as party is dissolved

Basil McCrea (left) and John McCallister pictured in February 2013 at the Belfast office of the News Letter ahead of NI21 being established
Basil McCrea (left) and John McCallister pictured in February 2013 at the Belfast office of the News Letter ahead of NI21 being established

NI21 will be remembered for helping to set back the cause of liberal unionism according to one of its founders, as the party is officially struck from the electoral register today.

The party – founded on June 5, 2013, by ex-Ulster Unionists Basil McCrea and John McCallister – has endured years of controversy, resignations, and poor results at the ballot box.

Now it is being officially removed from the register of Northern Irish parties by the Electoral Commission because it has not renewed its registration.

John McCallister was its deputy leader until his resignation on July 2, 2014.

Last night he told the News Letter that, ever since that time, he has believed “if NI21 was a cow, you would put it down”.

He added: “It amazes me it’s lived on this long.”

He said that today’s news simply represents its “death certificate”.

He told the News Letter: “It’ll not be remembered that fondly by many people.

“For a brief moment in probably 2013 it looked like it really could be a real centre ground, progressive movement.

“And then it just really lost the run of itself in 2014 and was all over the place with nobody really leading it.”

The Electoral Commission’s deadline for renewing NI’s party registration was Monday.

The initial setting up of the party cost £150, and renewing its registration costs £25 and must be done annually.

NI21 had to renew its registration on Monday this week.

However it had not done so, and so it is understood that from today it will cease to exist on the Electoral Commission’s roll of parties.

It had filed its last accounts on April 30 this year, showing a £51.19 deficit.

As of Wednesday, Basil McCrea was still the party leader.

It is possible that, one day, the individuals behind NI21 could register a party again with using the same name.

However, Mr McCallister believes this is unlikely, because “the name is just toxic”.

He said the Province “desperately needs” a party which is “liberal unionist” in outlook.

“That will be re-invented – but there will be nobody trying to breathe life into NI21, because it is dead, gone, no more”, he said.

Asked if NI21’s travails had set back the liberal unionist cause, he said it “undoubtedly” had.

The reason is because so many supporters were left “completely disillusioned”.

Following its formation in 2013, Mr McCallister said that the party had “very quickly became not particularly liberal, [and] not particularly unionist”, adding that as it began to collapse its members split off to join other groups ranging from the UUP to the Communist Party of Ireland.

“NI21 quickly lost its way because the leader didn’t know what he wanted to do with it, but didn’t want anyone else to do anything with it, and it just became what I’d say [was] a large cess pit.

“People that got their fingers burnt who were new and enthusiastic about politics.

“It might be a while before they’re persuaded back into it again.”

Originally a unionist party, two days before the 2014 council and European elections, NI21 party changed its official stance from “unionist” to “other”.

In an interview with the News Letter shortly afterwards, Mr McCallister branded the party “dysfunctional”.

Then on May 22, 2014 – the same day as the election itself – party chairwoman Tina McKenzie quit.

The party (which saw only one councillor elected, who then went on to quit NI21 in December last year), then became embroiled in a controversy about alleged misconduct by Basil McCrea, including claims he made sexual advances towards his PA.

He denied any wrongdoing, and in March this year was cleared of breaching the MLAs’ code of conduct by Stormont’s Standards Commissioner in relation to all 12 allegations made against him (although the Assembly’s Standards Committee expressed concerns about how he had spoken to and treated his staff).

Mr McCrea welcomed the report, which he said had “completely exonerated” him.

Read his response to the report here.

On New Year’s Eve, 2015, Mr McCrea said that NI21 would “stand as an idea”, and would not neccessarily put candidates forward for the 2016 Assembly election.

In the end, he did not attempt to hold on to his Lagan Valley MLA seat in that election.

Mr McCallister fought but lost his South Down seat.

Today, Mr McCallister said he is doing some farming and some consultancy around peace-and-reconciliation matters.

Mr McCrea could not be reached last night.

He has described himself as a “social media entrepreneur” on his Twitter account, and as a “social media raconteur” on the website Periscope, where he has posted more than 100 video clips in the last two months.

The website which his Twitter profile refers people to, www.basilmccrea.com, appeared not to be functioning on Wednesday.