It says something about a political party when the satirical website to which is has been linked is more important than the party. Or that the revelation of that link is more significant than an interview with its former deputy leader and a former leadership contender for a major NI political party. That it seems is the fate of NI21 and John McCallister respectively. Alex Kane has a long interview with John McCallister in the News Letter today with Sam McBride highlighting the link between LAD and NI21.
McCallister’s explanations for the collapse of NI21 are in many ways unsurprising with much of the blame being given to Basil McCrea as a controlling force who wanted to be the leader. McCrea’s lack of interest in the party grass roots also, however, shines through:
JMcC: Basil made it clear from the start that the party executive would have no role at all in policy making—it would just be him and me. And he wasn’t interested in making any. Then, when it comes to the biggest decision we had had to make so far, a meeting of the executive is called and, without any prior discussion at all—and while candidates were actually on doorsteps and not consulted—they decided to announce the shift from unionist to ‘other.’ I didn’t even know this issue was up for discussion before I arrived.
I had always said to the party right from the start that we were a unionist party and designated as a unionist party and that our aim was to define what a modern unionism and modern unionist party might look like. It was about respect, diversity and pluralism. But I was happy not to wrap the party in a flag or even have flags or bunting at our conference. We didn’t need to mention the Union in every other sentence. That was the drive for me. A form of unionism which didn’t need to be shouted from the rooftops or plastered throughout our literature. A confident unionism in other words.
AK: Was there a moment in that period from the conference in November 2013 to the late announcement of candidates in March 2014 that you and Basil realised that you were running on empty in terms of your personal relationship?
JMcC: At the start Basil and I would have agreed that the most important relationship—the key to success, if you like—was the personal relationship between him and me. But it became clear, once the party executive was up and running at the end of 2013, that all of the power and control—over e-mailing of members, website and communications etc—was resting in his hands. But he also had personal control of all of our election candidates, most of whom I knew nothing about until the beginning of March.
Basil also told me that the joint leadership stuff wasn’t really working. He didn’t want to consult. He didn’t want to discuss. He didn’t want to make all that many decisions, either, but whatever decisions had to be made he was determined to make them himself. People ask why I didn’t play a part: well, it’s because I wasn’t given the opportunity to play a part. For example, I was presented with a leaflet and told ‘there’s our election literature.’ We talked about it. I sent him an e-mail the following day. But there was never any further discussion about it: so hundreds of thousands of leaflets went out and I had no input or involvement. I had no say into how many candidates we fielded.
McCallister also seems to be trying to ensure that he is seen as a unionist (albeit with a small u) and avoiding any blame for the LAD attacks on other unionists:
AK: It has been put to me that some of the key people behind LadFleg (the satirical Facebook and Twitter sites) were also behind NI21’s Party Election Broadcast (PEB) and that the attacks on loyalism and the links between mainstream unionism and loyalism were part of a concerted campaign to help NI21. Is there any truth to that?
JMcC: I had no knowledge of the LadFleg involvement. The only time I learned of the identity of some of those behind it was when we were filming the PEB: so yes, they were involved in that. But my only involvement in that PEB was on the day before it was to be filmed and I was given a quick look at the script. I had to do a small piece at the end, but I refused to use the “don’t vote for us” line they wanted me to use.
But yes, there was certainly a close relationship between some of the people behind LadFleg and some of the people on the NI21 executive, including, of course, Basil. Was there an orchestrated campaign by LadFleg to help the aims of NI21? I don’t know. I had no knowledge of it. But then I had no knowledge of a lot of things happening behind the scenes of NI21.
Also interesting is McCallister’s comments that he was canvassed by Alliance and the NI Conservatives. His dismissal of Alliance for being inadequately unionist makes some sense especially in view of their progressively less unionist feel over the last couple of years. His palpable contempt for the Conservatives: “Conservatives are not a sellable brand here—as the two recent elections demonstrated yet again.” may be entirely accurate but a bit ironic in view of NI21’s collapse.
What is also interesting is what McCallister mentions so little: namely the sexual harassement complaints made against Basil McCrea. The investigation by the Stormont standards commissioner has not finished but one is left wondering if there was anything in the allegations at all. If there is little or nothing in them, McCallister’s actions and motivations over the whole affair might come in for scrutiny, especially in view of what McCallister says was an already fractured relationship.
McCallister goes on to discuss his private members bill with Alex Kane but the likelihood of this succeeding seems low. What one is left with more than anything is the feeling that either McCrea or McCallister would have been a complete disaster as UUP leader. Whether either of them has a political future now must be dubious.