NI21 in chaos as deputy leader says party is dysfunctional

A snap decision by NI21 to change its registration at Stormont from ‘unionist’ to ‘other’ was last night condemned by the party’s deputy leader as “crazy”.

Lifting the lid on deep internal fractures within the Province’s newest political party, John McCallister said that the decision showed how “dysfunctional” NI21 had become.

Basil McCrea, Tina McKenzie and John McCallister of NI21

Basil McCrea, Tina McKenzie and John McCallister of NI21

Last night Mr McCallister told the News Letter that there was no consultation with him, no agenda for the party executive meeting which took the decision at short notice yesterday and some members of the executive were not even told of the meeting, meaning that it was “not a properly constituted executive meeting”.

Mr McCallister said that the decision “puts us right into no man’s land with the Alliance Party”.

In a statement at teatime yesterday announcing the policy U-turn, party leader Basil McCrea said that “we have decided it is important to clarify our position on the constitutional question”.

But Mr McCallister said: “The way in which the [NI21] executive was handled points to a lot of the dysfunctionality in the party. There was no agenda sent out. This was organised this afternoon; I was literally told to come down from my constituency to Belfast to do it, with no idea what it was about.”

He said that the meeting consisted of a “15 or 20-minute discussion with everyone keen to get back out canvassing”.

The South Down MLA said: “It went to a vote which was overwhelmingly [in favour] if you count that there were five or six people in the room – Tina [McKenzie], Basil [McCrea], Olive [Buckley], Stephen [Hillis] and Tony [McMahon] all voting for.

“I voted against. I think it muddies the waters unnecessarily; I don’t think it’s helpful; I don’t think it clarifies any position.”

Mr McCallister said that he would have wanted to see a “much wider discussion within the party”, particularly among candidates, who he said knew nothing of what was going on, rather than “two people spoke to me on the canvass last night, so we’ll change an established position”. He said that the party needed “to get on and talk about real issues – about health, housing and education”, not about what the party’s designation should be.

When asked where the decision left the party just 40 hours before its first electoral test, Mr McCallister said candidly: “I’ve no idea where it leaves us”, adding that it was “ironic” that the party was not required to designate as unionist or nationalist in either councils or the European Parliament.

In announcing the change yesterday evening, Mr McCrea said: “Although we are a pro United Kingdom party, we have decided to designate as ‘Other’.

“When we originally formed the party, we designated ‘Unionist’ because we wanted to be open and transparent on the constitutional position.

“However, as we have engaged with the electorate over the last number of months, it’s clear to us that using the term ‘Unionist’ doesn’t just mean someone who is pro United Kingdom, and therefore is confusing.

“There are of course people who are happy to be called ‘Unionist’, and they are more than welcome in NI21, but it’s clear that the majority of people do not like the labels of the past and the use of such labels is inconsistent with our message.”

Mr McCrea added: “This won’t affect Thursday’s election but will be in place for following elections.”