The leadership of NI21 last night imploded as senior members of the party’s executive fled, two hours after allegations were put to Basil McCrea.
In an astonishing development, the party’s European election candidate Tina McKenzie resigned from the party executive at 9.35pm – 25 minutes before polls closed.
By that stage, another member of the executive had already resigned, while a third also quit before polls closed at 10pm.
The extraordinary sequence of events unfolded shortly after NI21 leader Basil McCrea visited the News Letter offices in central Belfast and was presented with the statement of the former party worker who alleges misconduct.
After speaking to us, and denying the allegations after consulting his solicitor, Mr McCrea recorded a television interview with the BBC.
In the interview with The View, after being given details of the allegations by the former party worker and her identity, Mr McCrea said that there had been “no allegation put to me”.
NI21 deputy leader John McCallister had already recorded an interview with the programme in which he revealed that, after being told of allegations against Mr McCrea in recent weeks, he had brought in an outside company, Carecall, to speak to staff confidentially and prepare a report into the issue.
He alleged that the party’s sudden decision on Tuesday to redesignate from ‘unionist’ to ‘other’ at Stormont was part of an attempt to force him out of the party so that he could not continue overseeing the investigation.
Mr McCrea strongly denied that allegation and insisted that it was a purely political decision.
The first to resign from the executive was Stephen Hillis.
In an email to Ms McKenzie announcing his decision at 9.27pm, Mr Hillis said: “It is with some sorrow and a heavy heart that I notify you all of my resignation from the Executive of NI21.
“This has been a fascinating journey where I have learnt much and hopefully made good friends.
“I remain supportive of NI21 and the message we stand for and intend to continue at constituency association level.”
Ms McKenzie’s emailed resignation was sent at 9.35pm — 25 minutes before polls closed last night.
In a message sent from her phone so hastily that it contained two typing mistakes, Ms McKenzie said: “I would like to confirm my resignation with immediate effect from the Executive.
“I will of course continue yo (sic) support NI21 but an (sic) looking forward to spending time with my family after a long year of supporting the party.
“I wish John and Basil sincere goodwill and hope they can work out their differences for the sake of the party.”
Twelve minutes later – still more than 10 minutes before polls closed – treasurer Tony McMahon also quit.
In his emailed resignation, Mr McMahon said: “I wish to step down from NI21 with immediate effect.
“I am also standing down as treasurer with immediate effect.”
Those statements were followed by an email from Mr McCrea, which was sent to the party’s membership at 10.05pm.
In it, he claimed a conspiracy to undermine the party was behind the allegations which he faces.
“Now that the polls have closed, I am in the unfortunate position of having to tell you more bad news.
“Tonight on The View, John McCallister will give an extensive interview alleging that the decision to redesignate was an attempt to derail an investigation into inappropriate sexual activity by me.
“I have responded, pointing out that the designation issue was covered at length in my speech launching the local government campaign and the decision to announce it was taken in response to feedback from the campaign.
“Most people I have spoken to agree with this position.
“With regard to the allegations of sexual misconduct, people will have been aware of rumours and social media activity.
“This has been part of an ongoing campaign which has caused great stress to a number of people in the party.
“You will hear shortly that members of the Executive team will be resigning, not because of any specific allegations, but simply because of the stresses involved, I can understand their position.
“I believe they will be remaining in the party and I wish to thank them for their efforts.
“If, and when, specific complaints are made I will address them, believing that I have done nothing wrong.
“However, I observe that the timing of this activity does suggest an active campaign to destabilise the party.
“I will finish by saying that every vote that the party received sends a message to the existing political parties and I hope that you will be successful in driving Northern Ireland forward in the future.”