‘I helped found NI21, but it does not deserve to even survive’

John McCallister, Basil McCrea and NI21 chairwoman Tina McKenzie pictured at the party's launch in 2013. Picture By: Arthur Allison.
John McCallister, Basil McCrea and NI21 chairwoman Tina McKenzie pictured at the party's launch in 2013. Picture By: Arthur Allison.

Former NI21 deputy leader John McCallister speaks to News Letter columnist Alex Kane about the party’s implosion, his bid to create a mechanism for a Stormont Opposition and whether he would rejoin the UUP.

Alex Kane: At what point did you realise that the NI21 project wasn’t going to work out as you had hoped?

John McCallister: It was a gradual thing rather than a bolt of lightning moment. The highpoint for NI21 was the conference in November 2013 when we talked about the roadmap to a new, normal society—particularly reform of Stormont and opposition. But instead of focusing on that agenda we sort of trundled along with not doing politics particularly well at all: like the stuff about On-The-Runs, when Basil was totally on the wrong page and didn’t bother discussing it with me before he did his Nolan Show interview.

And then we moved into the election period at the beginning of 2014 with a huge frustration from me that candidates weren’t being announced because Basil ignored all of the advice to get out early with policies and people knocking doors. We had huge problems, too, with late selection and people being held in the traps. And even the fact that Tina McKenzie wasn’t selected as the Euro candidate until the middle of March made it very difficult to get her name out in the public domain. And we didn’t even have a proper launch. We just put out a press release on social media at midnight and then claimed to be surprised when the mainstream media barely mentioned it!

Basically there was just too much central control—one-man control as it turned out—around the leader; but decisions which had to be made weren’t being made because Basil didn’t like making any sort of decision that might annoy one person or another.

AK: Tina McKenzie—the former chairwoman—has said that, from quite early on, she thought the relationship between you and Basil McCrea wasn’t good. Was that because it became clear almost from the start that there was difference between you and Basil in terms of vision and ambition for NI21?

JMcC: Looking back that’s a fair point. I wanted to set out a clear pro-Union, centrist, centre-right picture for a modern United Kingdom party and what role the new party could play. But it was quite clear that Basil was just bringing people in to make up the numbers and losing the focus and definition of what the party was supposed to be about.

AK: You mention a small-u pro-Union party. But isn’t there a sense that you never really resolved this issue of what you really were? Indeed when the decision was made—on the eve of the election—to redesignate from unionist to ‘other’ it looked like the party was increasingly uncomfortable with a pro-Union identity, let alone a unionist identity.

JMcC: There are a number of issues there. Basil made it clear from the start that the party executive would have no role at all in policy making—it would just be him and me. And he wasn’t interested in making any. Then, when it comes to the biggest decision we had had to make so far, a meeting of the executive is called and, without any prior discussion at all—and while candidates were actually on doorsteps and not consulted—they decided to announce the shift from unionist to ‘other.’ I didn’t even know this issue was up for discussion before I arrived.

I had always said to the party right from the start that we were a unionist party and designated as a unionist party and that our aim was to define what a modern unionism and modern unionist party might look like. It was about respect, diversity and pluralism. But I was happy not to wrap the party in a flag or even have flags or bunting at our conference. We didn’t need to mention the Union in every other sentence. That was the drive for me. A form of unionism which didn’t need to be shouted from the rooftops or plastered throughout our literature. A confident unionism in other words.

AK: Some people have suggested that the decision to redesignate was on the back of a Belfast Telegraph opinion poll which had indicated that NI21 had gone from almost 5% support levels to around 2%. It was put to me at the time by some former NI21 members that McCrea and McKenzie believed they weren’t going to get enough unionist or pro-Union votes and so decided to either dump or play down their unionist credentials. You weren’t brought into this discussion at the time, but do you think that that’s what lay behind the decision?

JMcC: Yes. Indeed it was beginning to look like both Basil and Tina were beginning to obsess about taking votes off Sinn Fein, even though our target vote should have been disaffected Ulster Unionists, the more pro-Union wing of Alliance and non-voters or new voters who were pro-UK but not in favour of loud, down-your-throat unionism. But trying to spread out from disaffected UUP voters to Sinn Fein voters was never going to be a winning formula. It was a bloody stupid idea. And Tina using West Belfast as a barometer for whether we should redesignate was also madness.

AK: So in your view the decision to redesignate—putting off pro-Union/unionist voters without winning over the first preferences of republicans or nationalists—did more electoral damage than anything else which emerged in the last couple of days of the election campaign?

JMcC: Yes, because once you announce a redesignation—particularly one which was meaningless because it couldn’t even happen until after the 2016 Assembly election—it just added total confusion to what people think you are about and stand for. Some of our candidates only heard about the change on the Tuesday night when the people they were meeting during canvassing told them about it! It was one of the most cack-handed things I’ve ever heard of. And to ignore your deputy leader on such a key decision, while taking advice from an executive made up of people who had little or no political experience, was sheer lunacy.

AK: What do you make of Basil’s claims that the eve of poll implosion was all part of an “orchestrated conspiracy” by the other parties, the NIO and elements of the media to destroy NI21 because they feared its success?

JMcC: Indeed. And the moon landings didn’t happen either. And there was another shooter on the grassy knoll! It is nonsense. Nobody told us to redesignate. Nobody told us to abandon focus on policy. Nobody made us hold back on announcing candidates until the very last minute. Nobody made us produce literature that told people not to vote for us. That was our doing. It wasn’t part of any conspiracy. And the media, NIO and other parties weren’t responsible for the Carecall stuff because they didn’t know about it. Basil’s talk of conspiracy is just la-la land nonsense.

AK: Was there a moment in that period from the conference in November 2013 to the late announcement of candidates in March 2014 that you and Basil realised that you were running on empty in terms of your personal relationship?

JMcC: At the start Basil and I would have agreed that the most important relationship—the key to success, if you like—was the personal relationship between him and me. But it became clear, once the party executive was up and running at the end of 2013, that all of the power and control—over e-mailing of members, website and communications etc—was resting in his hands. But he also had personal control of all of our election candidates, most of whom I knew nothing about until the beginning of March.

Basil also told me that the joint leadership stuff wasn’t really working. He didn’t want to consult. He didn’t want to discuss. He didn’t want to make all that many decisions, either, but whatever decisions had to be made he was determined to make them himself. People ask why I didn’t play a part: well, it’s because I wasn’t given the opportunity to play a part. For example, I was presented with a leaflet and told ‘there’s our election literature.’ We talked about it. I sent him an e-mail the following day. But there was never any further discussion about it: so hundreds of thousands of leaflets went out and I had no input or involvement. I had no say into how many candidates we fielded.

AK: But if it was that bad and your personal relationship with Basil had collapsed, why didn’t you just leave the party?

JMcC: NI21 and the values were mine, too. I wasn’t hitching a ride on it. So it would have been a huge thing to have walked out. I would have left after the redesignation decision if I had had only myself to think about and take responsibility for. But there were staff to think of. There were the impact and consequences of the Carecall stuff to oversee. But for those things, and the duty of care I had to staff, I would happily have gone.

AK: It has been put to me that some of the key people behind LadFleg (the satirical Facebook and Twitter sites) were also behind NI21’s Party Election Broadcast (PEB) and that the attacks on loyalism and the links between mainstream unionism and loyalism were part of a concerted campaign to help NI21. Is there any truth to that?

JMcC: I had no knowledge of the LadFleg involvement. The only time I learned of the identity of some of those behind it was when we were filming the PEB: so yes, they were involved in that. But my only involvement in that PEB was on the day before it was to be filmed and I was given a quick look at the script. I had to do a small piece at the end, but I refused to use the “don’t vote for us” line they wanted me to use.

But yes, there was certainly a close relationship between some of the people behind LadFleg and some of the people on the NI21 executive, including, of course, Basil. Was there an orchestrated campaign by LadFleg to help the aims of NI21? I don’t know. I had no knowledge of it. But then I had no knowledge of a lot of things happening behind the scenes of NI21.

AK: What did you think of the broadcast?

JMcC: It was good: much better than I expected it to be. It was probably the high point of our election. But there was no policy. And no idea of what the Euro campaign was about. And on a wider point the whole Euro campaign had collapsed at that point. There was no central team running it. The website was being redesigned during it—about the fifth time it had been redesigned since we started. Basil seems to have opted out—like he knew what was coming and didn’t want to face it. Tina’s results, even in her own council area, were appalling.

AK: Is there a future for NI21? Can it even survive?

JMcC: No. And nor does it deserve to. It saddens me to say that because I was one of the people who helped to build it. The tragedy of it is, is that the message that there is the space for a new party here has been fundamentally damaged. I had already sensed around February that neither the UUP nor Alliance saw us as a potential threat anymore, having being nervous about us last autumn. Last Christmas Basil was predicting that NI21 would be getting up to 50,000 votes and we were nowhere near that.

And it’s worth noting that the postal votes—which were in before the party imploded across the media—gave us almost the same percentage of votes as we got through the ballot box. In other words the project was already holed beneath the water. We were offering no policy. We hadn’t made it clear what was different between us and Alliance. We relied far too much on social media to get our message across: which is a risky strategy for a new, small party. The brand wasn’t strong enough to promote our Euro candidate and she wasn’t strong enough to promote the brand herself.

AK: What do you say to those who say that the real problem with NI21 was you and Basil? You couldn’t work with other people in the UUP. You couldn’t work with each other in NI21. That you are, in fact, two egotistical mavericks who can’t actually work with anyone else?

JMcC: In terms of the UUP I always knew where I wanted them to be: in Opposition, providing an alternative to what the DUP was doing. I was always against unionist unity. I also believed that there was a marketplace out there for the sort of generous, pluralist unionism I believed in. So my problems with the UUP were always about the direction it was heading. Once you go down the route of election pacts you re-sectarianise our politics and that’s the last thing we needed. That’s why I left.

As far as Basil was concerned I would accept that we were probably building two separate things early on in the project. Basil wanted a political movement that was effectively style over substance, while I wanted a political party that was substance over style: something that would genuinely stretch our thinking here and establish something solid and fresh at the centre of the process. Basil was never particularly keen on pinning NI21 down on too much.

AK: Is it true that you were approached by both Alliance and the Conservatives after you left the UUP and turned at least one of them down because they didn’t want Basil as part of the package?

JMcC: I don’t want to get into the details, because they were supposed to be off the record conversations, but I didn’t turn down the Conservatives because of Basil. I turned them down because the Conservatives are not a sellable brand here—as the two recent elections demonstrated yet again.

Alliance I turned down for the two reasons that I wanted NI21 to work: as pro-Union and as Opposition. Alliance is in government and ‘agnostic’ on the Union, so I couldn’t join then.

AK: You’ve left NI21: what do you do now?

JMcC: Look, I’ll be carrying the scars of NI21 for a while. But I am encouraged that South Down, having elected people like Brian Faulkner and Dermot Nesbitt down the years, has a record of supporting liberal type unionists. So I do think that there is still a place for a strong, independent voice articulating my type of unionism. And I’ll be pushing ahead with my Private Member’s Bill on Opposition and general reform because I believe there is a mood out there among the wider public for change. No one looking in over the past few years could say that the Assembly has been a roaring success: so change really is needed if we are to save the structures and strengthen the process. We seem to be ambling our way to collapse and if the place did fall you’d be lucky to get 100 turning up in the grounds of Stormont to demand its return!

AK: You may be right about there still being a place for an independent voice like yours, but don’t you really need a vehicle if you are to make a difference?

JMcC: The priority for me in the lifetime of this Assembly is to shore up my base and my views in my South Down constituency and get reelected in 2016. The views and values I had in the UUP, in NI21 and as an independent MLA have not changed. They are precisely the same as the ones I was elected with in 2007 and 2011. Walking away from the UUP may have caused me a great career in the party but I’d rather hold firm to my principles and values than be elected on a false ticket. So yes, I’ll be standing again in 2016, in South Down and on the same broad platform as before. I’m not ruling out a new vehicle, but it wouldn’t be credible until I get myself elected again.

AK: Tell me a little more about your Private Member’s Bill?

JMcC: I voted yes in 1998 and would do so again. But the challenge now is that if we fail to reform Stormont that could be what brings it down. That message needs to be got out not just to the people in Northern Ireland, but also to the British and Irish governments. The failure not to reform could easily be the source of total collapse.

And it’s more than just robust scrutiny and choices at elections. It’s about genuine alternatives. Opposition is the only way of ensuring real power sharing rather than merely sharing out power. We also need to ensure that there is a proper, collectively agreed Programme for Government, which covers all ministers in all departments and acts as the yardstick by which the media and the electorate can measure the success or otherwise of the Executive. At the moment, with a blend of side deals and silo mentalities nobody really knows who does what, let alone who gets credit or blame. With the sort of reform I’m proposing it wouldn’t really matter who the minister was, or which party he came from, because the minister would be promoting a policy agenda already agreed by the Executive parties in the Programme for Government. We actually have systems and structures which encourage and nurture dysfunctionality.

AK: The Bill will require support from both the DUP and Sinn Fein, so how likely is it that it will succeed?

JMcC: Peter Robinson has said before that the DUP supports an official Opposition. So have the UUP and Alliance. Sinn Fein have built up an enormous credibility in the South by being in Opposition, so they shouldn’t fear the possibility of another party or parties doing the same thing here. No one is going to push them out of the Executive anyway if they keep getting the same level of votes. This is not about trying to push parties out or guarantee they stay in, it’s about improving government, accountability, responsibility, credibility, collectivity and choice.

The consultation stage is over and it is being drafted now, so I’m hoping that it can be introduced in the early part of 2015. The Assembly and Executive Review Committee have discussed the issues around reform in the past, but nobody has really had to show the colour of their money. My bill will require the parties to vote one way or another and explain why they have done so.

AK: Irrespective of the noises they make when asked about reform and opposition do you really think that the DUP, SF, UUP, SDLP and Alliance are serious about it? Doesn’t the present system work well for them, even if it doesn’t work all that well for the rest of us?

JMcC: Actually, you may be right. The DUP probably don’t want Sinn Fein in government at all. Sinn Fein probably don’t want Northern Ireland to look ‘normal’ in the political or governing sense. But because all of the parties, particularly the smaller ones, would rather be locked in to the Executive rather than provide an alternative by taking on the role of Opposition, there is no fresh thinking.

That’s what my bill tries to do. I want the Assembly to work. I want the institutions to work. I want collective responsibility. I want a government in Northern Ireland that works well and is seen to work well. I want choice. I want alternatives. I want genuine debate. I want the Executive to stand behind a Programme for Government which every Executive party and minister promotes and champions. My bill represents a make-your-mind-up time for the Assembly and maybe even for the entire political process.

AK: The great dividing line between you and Mike Nesbitt in the leadership contest in March 2012 was the very issue of Opposition and he beat you by 81% - 19%. How do you think he has done as leader? Is the UUP in a better place now than it was then?

JMcC: To be fair to Mike they have at least been able to give the distinct impression that they have consolidated—something which may have been made easier by myself and Basil leaving. They did better at the local government elections than was expected and seemed to have learned lessons about getting the nominations done faster, getting their candidates out earlier, not over-fielding and no public spats. The party is certainly in a better place than I thought it would have been, even though they didn’t push their vote up dramatically.

But I would still have huge problems with the fact that they still aren’t accommodating small-u unionists or challenging Alliance particularly effectively.

AK: Would you ever go back to the UUP?

JMcC: I still come back to the reason I left the party in March 2013 and my concerns about pacts and unionist unity. That sort of thing is, I think, bad for unionism and bad for Northern Ireland. So when I hear talk about unionist pacts for next year’s general election in the four Belfast constituencies, Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Mid-Ulster it raises the question of why not just go the whole hog and have one party? In my view that wouldn’t be healthy for unionism and it wouldn’t maximize the pro-Union vote either.

AK: You haven’t said the words no, or never, never, never about rejoining the UUP—so are you ruling it out or not?

JMcC: I’m saying never, never, never. The reasons I left are as strong as they were and the party is still trying to ride too many horses.

AK: How do you feel about Basil now? Is he broken: is his career recoverable?

JMcC: I feel sorry for anyone going through this type of scrutiny, particularly when it impacts on his family too. No winners emerge from this sort of thing, so all you can hope for is that he gets some sort of resolution that allows him to move on. He’s not in a good place at the moment.

AK: What is your message to all those people who joined NI21 or who voted for NI21?

JMcC: I’m sorry that we collectively—me, Basil and the party executive—let you down. One of the things we were good at in the beginning was motivating people who hadn’t been involved in politics and who had given up on something better coming along. So to those who joined, voted and put themselves forward as candidates the tragedy of this is that the vehicle failed. But the vehicle—albeit not branded as NI21—is still required and at some point it will come around again. So I would urge those people to hold the faith with elected politics. Stormont is in for a difficult few years, so keep the faith that there are other people who want something better. So get involved in civic society. Get your voice heard. Don’t sit back and expect others to do it for you, though.