Comment: NI21 party’s actions suggest vast internal problems

Basil McCrea  and John McAllister pictured on the steps of Stormont in Belfast
Basil McCrea and John McAllister pictured on the steps of Stormont in Belfast

Yesterday NI21 leader Basil McCrea used radio interviews to try to explain his party’s sudden change on the eve of its first election.

It is difficult to see how the last-minute move from ‘unionist’ to ‘other’ ended the “confusion” which Mr McCrea explained as his intention. But he sidestepped a far more fundamental question.

When a visibly unhappy John McCallister walked into the News Letter offices on Tuesday night after coming straight from the NI21 executive meeting, his complaint was two-fold: that abandoning the ‘unionist’ label was “crazy” and that the way in which the decision was taken was evidence of how dysfunctional the party had become.

He claimed that he was summoned to a party executive meeting without an agenda, without being told what was to be discussed and to which some members of the executive had not been even invited.

If those allegations are true, they point to a core around Mr McCrea which is treating the deputy leader with disdain. If they are not true, it is odd that Mr McCrea did not strongly reject the allegations yesterday.

Last night the News Letter obtained an email (published in full on our website) which further reveals the hurried nature of Tuesday’s decision. Peter Hutchinson, NI21’s head of policy, says in the email that not even he was consulted about the change. If true, this gives the impression of a party being run by a clique around the leader.

In the email to NI21’s executive, Mr Hutchinson said: “I am writing to voice my disappointment at not being consulted on the decision taken by the executive this evening ...I am in daily contact via email, telephone or in person with John and Basil on policy issues...”

Mr Hutchinson said that he could not attend the hastily-called meeting due to the short notice given but that when he asked a member of the executive “if there was an agenda or issue I could feed into...this offer was not taken up”. He added: “It would have been a professional and common courtesy to seek my opinion, especially on a decision of this significance.”

Whatever one’s view of NI21’s policies, the party did succeed in attracting scores of enthusiastic people hitherto turned off politics. For the party to implode so spectacularly before a ballot paper has been marked suggests vast internal problems.