I first became aware of Basil McCrea when in February 2013 he left the UUP after a disagreement over the fielding of a unionist unity candidate in mid ulster. I had listened to Basil and his then friend John McCallister on television debates and I liked what I heard. They both appeared to be in favour of a Northern Ireland where it was possible to aspire to having an Irish or British identity. That appealed to me as I feel proud of both my identities, the one that is native Irish and the one from Somerset that can be traced back to Sir Walter Raleigh. I hoped that they would set up a new party so when they launched NI21 on the 6 June 2013 I thought, even at this late stage in my life this is a party with which I can identify. I did not see myself getting actively involved but was persuaded to go to a meet and greet in the Europa hotel.
I had no preconceptions but had a few points I thought worth bringing up. There were others there, some of whom were already committed to the party. Basil went round each one asking for their views. I remember saying that they were losing momentum from the date of the launch, that it seemed a bit like the Basil party and I wanted to know how they were different from the Alliance. I think Basil thought I was cheeky but he was charming and if that annoyed him he said nothing. I think that might be when he daubed me as feisty.
I came away convinced that this was a party that was going somewhere. I read all the adverse comments by commentators and wondered why they would want to slate a party who genuinely wanted to make a difference. Basil was passionate about the new party. I had no way of assessing Mr McCallister’s commitment as I never really met him. He was at a meeting I attended but had to rush away after a few minutes. The conference came and went. It was very successful. Both Basil and John made rousing speeches which were well received and got standing ovations.
We were promised that day in November that things would swing into action and this would be up to David Rose. I heard later that due to other commitments he wasn’t able to fulfil that role.
I think it was around that time that our local commentators started trying to demean the party. We had the beauty pageant incident, possibly an error of judgement on Basil’s part, but the detractors licked their lips and scented blood.
John McCallister started to be as illusive a sight as a Duper in the Vatican and it appeared that the administration was under pressure. Egos got a battering. One trying to outdo the other as to their importance in the party. Personnel came and went. Things were beginning to fall apart. Candidates should have been announced much more in advance but for various reasons we were still in the dark until just six weeks before the election. I got a phone call two days before the election from a candidate telling me that we were redesignating. I have to be honest and say that we both thought this was a risky strategy. I was present three weeks before the election when Basil Mc Crea was told that John McCallister was intending to leave the party. He was not happy with Basil being leader. He wasn’t happy with the executive although they were voted in by the membership on the day of the conference. He was no longer supportive of the party and that was obvious from the fact that he didn’t actually know all the candidates. Perhaps he was annoyed that he not been chosen as the MEP candidate?
Basil was distraught . He had worked incredibly hard and found it difficult to manage all that he was expected to do. The fact that he no longer had John’s support was a major problem. He knew what would happen if the press got wind of the dissention in the party. This could jeopardise the election and all the hard work put in by the candidates. I advised him to speak to John and ask that for the sake of the 47 candidates he put this challenge off until after the election. I understand a meeting, which was quite heated, took place but I understood a truce was arranged until after the election.
They were barely speaking and had I also been told that there had been a rumour of inappropriate behaviour. These allegations had still not been made known to Basil Mc Crea (apart from the Ashleigh Murray allegation ) two weeks after John McCallister had passed the names on to Carecall. I understand someone was threatening to go the press with these allegations. What has also been overlooked is the fact that at least one of those who saw Carecall had not progressed any allegations. This was due to the fact that they had been mislead over the purpose of the Carecall enquiry. Carecall is not an investigative organisation, more a counselling organisation designed to solve problems between employers and employees. I don’t know why John chose the time to release details of the enquiry to the News Letter two days before the election. Was it in a fit of pique over the designation? No one was in any danger if he had waited a few days.
I have met Basil McCrea on many occasions since the election. His physical and mental health have been a cause for concern and I feel for his family. To date no one has made any allegations to the PSNI. He was under pressure to get things done and didn’t always cope well and I know he would admit that there was a lot of pressure on him. He had no experience of setting up a party and made many mistakes. However I feel he has suffered enough. His future is uncertain, his reputation has been tarnished and so called friends have deserted him. He is a man who has been let down by his friend. Those who continue to make snide remarks, hint at goings on that they didnt’t know the truth about, read the report and see what was going on to bring NI21 down
Hopefully the release of the report clearing Basil of any wrongdoing will allow him to move on and also reinvigorate NI21.