NI21 in potential split on eve of polling

Northern Ireland people voting to elect three MEPs and 462 councillors

NI21’s European election candidate Tina McKenzie speaks during the launch of the the party’s European election manifesto at Europa Hotel in Belfast

NI21’s European election candidate Tina McKenzie speaks during the launch of the the party’s European election manifesto at Europa Hotel in Belfast

 

As Northern Ireland electors vote today, NI21, one of the parties which is contesting both the local and European elections, was rocked by eve of poll divisions.

NI21, which was formed by two former Ulster Unionist Party Assembly members, Basil McCrea and John McCallister, almost a year ago, caused surprise by announcing on Tuesday evening – two days before voting – that it was changing its designation as a unionist party to the more neutral official Stormont label of “other”.

When formed in June last year, NI21 promoted itself as a moderate, liberal pro-union cross-community party attractive to Protestants, Catholics and people of no faith.

Businesswoman Tina McKenzie, who is of Catholic background and from west Belfast, is standing for the party in Europe. The party is also running 47 candidates in the elections to the North’s 11 new “super councils”.

Ms McKenzie said the decision was taken in response to the message candidates and canvassers were hearing on the doorstep.

Deputy leader and South Down Assemby member Mr McCallister took exception to the late decision to change designation, telling the Belfast-based News Letter it was “crazy” and “dysfunctional”.

No man’s land He said it put NI21 “right into no man’s land with the Alliance Party”, which in the Assembly is also designated under the “other” label, the description used to describe MLAs who are not unionists or nationalists.

Leader and Lagan Valley MLA Mr McCrea defended the decision, while criticising Mr McCallister’s response.

Meanwhile, more than 1.2 million Northern Ireland people are entitled to vote in today’s European and local elections which are taking place a day in advance of voting in the Republic.

Ten candidates are competing for three European seats with outgoing MEPs Martina Anderson for Sinn Féin, Diane Dodds of the DUP and Ulster Unionist Jim Nicholson favoured to hold their seats, although they could face a significant challenge from Alex Attwood of the SDLP and Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice Party.

A total of 905 candidates are competing for 462 seats on the North’s 11 new “super councils”. They are replacing the current 26 councils which have a total of 582 members.

On the eve of polling political leaders and candidates made final pitches for support. First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson warned that a “plethora” of unionists standing for Europe could cause unionist vote “shredding”.