In April 2013 I was invited by John McCallister and Basil McCrea to sit in on a meeting with them and a group of people who were planning to launch a new political party.
I was invited as a ‘critical friend,’ someone who had written extensively about the need for new vehicles and voices in local politics.
It was a good meeting: very relaxed and brimming with the sort of enthusiasm I hadn’t seen or heard in years. I had no interest in joining the new party, but I was keen to encourage new thinking anywhere I could.
I returned the following day to talk to a larger group of supporters about the challenges any new party would face from the media, the other parties (particularly Alliance and the softer end of the UUP) and a very sceptical electorate.
Checking back on my notes I see that I’d circled this line: “any signs of disunity or incoherence will kill you off within months of launching”.
But the launch of NI21 on June 6, 2013, was a huge success. Between four and five hundred people attended, the vast majority of whom were young and without political baggage. Basil and John were in spectacular form, delivering the sort of upbeat message this audience was desperate to hear.
The launch was followed by weeks of very generous, supportive coverage from the media, much to the very obvious annoyance of Alliance and the UUP. A few weeks later I was invited to address an NI21 summer school in Newcastle and give some general advice to potential candidates. There was so much young talent packed into that room that even an old cynic like me was prepared to believe that “something very good and very powerful” was unfolding.
Looking back it’s now obvious that the summer of 2013 was the highpoint for NI21. By the time of their first conference in December it was apparent that separate and competing Basil and John camps had emerged, with supporters of both men briefing against the other.
The buzz of three months earlier had gone, as had some of the people. There was no policy bank. No announcement of a Euro candidate. No ‘big moment’ for members and potential voters to grab hold of. It was a huge anti climax.
Last week Tina McKenzie, the former NI21 chair, said; “The relationship between Basil and John was horrifically bad.
“They could not work together, even from the earliest days. I did try to bring them together, to have a serious think about the impact on the party of their bad relationship. There was always underlying friction.”
I had written about the tensions back in January 2014 — although the party’s official line was to deny it — because supporters of both men had contacted me to tell me that the other one was “destroying the party” and “ruining the project”.
Two days before the Euro/local government elections in May 2014 it was announced that NI21 would change from “Designated Unionist” to “Designated Other”.
It was an extraordinary thing to do, not least because the change couldn’t actually happen until after the 2016 Assembly election: but it gave the very clear impression that what was supposedly a “small u, pro-United Kingdom” party was, at the very last moment, reaching out to voters who might, in fact, be uncomfortable with even a small u.
And in an interview that evening I said it would lose the new party votes and almost certainly fail to attract replacements.
But the eve-of-poll and polling day news was dominated by McCallister’s claim that the party was “dysfunctional” and by “allegations” surrounding McCrea.
Yet my view still remains what I had written at the beginning of May: NI21 wasn’t going to make a breakthrough because it hadn’t done the necessary work, it hadn’t prepared the candidates (or selected them early enough), it hadn’t managed to set out what it stood for and it lacked internal coherence.
So the last minute stuff about designation, dysfunctionality and personal allegations were just additional nails in a coffin that had already had the lid placed on top.
Almost two years on and McCrea, his name cleared, says that he will be the only NI21 candidate at the Assembly election. That’s a huge mistake. If he still believes in the “ideas and values of NI21” — and he says he does — then he needs to make sure the banner is raised in every constituency. And if he really can’t find 17 other members or supporters who are willing to champion NI21, then he needs to face the fact that, for all intents and purposes, NI21 no longer exists as a party.
Also, what happens if he loses in Lagan Valley? Does that mean that NI21 is officially dead, or does it just mean that his political career as NI21 leader is dead?
I can understand the pressures he has been under for the past two years and it’s clear from his demeanour that those pressures have taken their toll.
But I can’t understand why NI21 itself had a two-year period of hibernation. If the beliefs and values have merit — and I’ve always thought they do — then a core at the centre should have been allowed to keep building and spreading the message.
One man, one candidate, isn’t a party. It’s just one man seeking election. NI21 needs to know what level of support it has across NI.
And there’s only one way of testing that.