Analysis: Basil McCrea had the chance to build a significant movement, but he blew it

The manner in which Basil McCrea came to depart public life confirmed how politically erratic he had increasingly become.
Basil McCrea at the NI21 conference in November 2013. 

Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.Basil McCrea at the NI21 conference in November 2013. 

Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Basil McCrea at the NI21 conference in November 2013. Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Just 11 days prior to throwing in the towel, the flamboyant Lagan Valley MLA had done a round of interviews in which he pledged to fight for his political future in the wake of Assembly Standards Commissioner Douglas Bain clearing him of allegations of serious misconduct.

Around the same time, Mr McCrea was commenting in the wake of the Dail election – where independent candidates had performed well – that he thought independents could have a key role in the politics of the future.

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Yesterday, he did U-turns on both those claims, telling the Belfast Telegraph that he was disillusioned with politics.

And he claimed that “independents are no more than an irritant” in the political system, meaning that if he got re-elected in May he would have had little chance to speak in the Assembly and would have been “ignored”.

While sole MLAs such as Mr McCrea have less clout in the Assembly than members of big parties, MLAs in the same situation such as Jim Allister have shown that with hard work and ingenuity, their voice can be heard loudly.

In fact, Mr McCrea has silenced his own voice in many recent Assembly debates, choosing on some occasions to broadcast live internet videos from his Stormont office while Assembly debates are taking place .

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Last month, as MLAs responded to a statement by the justice minister announcing the closure of the main courthouse in Mr McCrea’s Lagan Valley constituency, Mr McCrea made one such video. At one point in it, he appeared to belittle MLAs who bothered to question the minister in the chamber, referring to a question from UUP MLA Ross Hussey and saying “you know what, it’s much ado about nothing, really”.

And, if Mr McCrea wants to see the value of independents, he need only look to his one-time friend and ally, John McCallister.

Just a fortnight ago, as the culmination of a four-year process which at the outset had looked improbable, Mr McCallister successfully steered through the Assembly his bill to create the first official Opposition at Stormont since 1972.

Despite the creation of an Opposition being a key founding principle of NI21, Mr McCrea never bothered to even speak during the hours of debate on the bill and didn’t vote on it at final stage.

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If he feels the voices of independents are stifled, debates on legislation are an instance where they have the same rights as any other MLA to speak.

But Mr McCrea’s strengths in politics always lay in his grasp of public relations and ability to inspire those around him (at least for a while), rather than the sort of hard, often boring, slog to get a private member’s bill through the legislative process.

Like most political journalists, I had a good relationship with Mr McCrea since taking up my current role seven years ago. He was easy to contact even when close to deadline, always had an opinion and understood how the media worked.

But almost two years ago, after I had put former NI21 worker Ashleigh Murray’s allegations of sexual misconduct (allegations which the Standards Commissioner has dismissed) to him in a lengthy face to face meeting on election night, he repeatedly declined (as he did two weeks ago in his infamous televised interview with Mark Carruthers) to address one of the core claims from Ms Murray about an alleged hotel room incident.

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In recent months, Mr McCrea has refused to speak to this newspaper at all.

In his interview yesterday, Mr McCrea savaged Mr McCallister for “ruining the party” by speaking to the News Letter on the eve of NI21’s first electoral test in 2014.

While his anger at Mr McCallister for denouncing the party as “dysfunctional” the day before the election is understandable and it unquestionably will have cost the party some votes, there is no evidence that NI21 failed at the polls as a result of that attack.

By that point, many people had already voted by post and many of those voting who do not follow the news would not have been aware of the row.

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The candidates had been chosen chaotically late, leaving them with grossly insufficient time to do the canvassing which is the bedrock of political success. Instead, Mr McCrea had focused the party’s time and energy on online activity, something which other parties believe bears limited fruit.

Mr McCrea’s firm leadership style saw him take most of the key decisions – including the bizarre last-minute move to drop the party’s ‘unionist’ designation in the Assembly without consulting his deputy leader until the meeting where it was to be decided.

Yet he has failed to take responsibility for his numerous errors which contributed to the party’s demise, instead blaming everyone from Mr McCallister to the media to unidentified “conspirators” for its implosion.

Basil McCrea was a charismatic politician who at one point had the chance to be the leader of a significant new political movement.

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In the summer of 2013, his new party had showed enough potential to suggest that it could chime with the new Northern Ireland which has been emerging since the 1998 Agreement.

An Ulster Unionist colleague told me years ago: “Basil has fallen out with everyone he’s ever worked with – that tells you something.”

That is not entirely true – he still has some supporters.

But the party which he is abandoning has become essentially an alter ego.

As the leader. there’s no one left to blame.

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