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Ni21 candidate backs leader 'at this time'

John Manley Political Reporter

NI21's European candidate could offer only qualified support for leader Basil McCrea last night after the fall-out from the redesignation controversy split the fledgling party on the eve of its first election.

Tina McKenzie said the Lagan Valley MLA had her backing as leader "at this point in time".

Her comments came as NI21 imploded yesterday with a falling out between its two elected representatives and founding members.

The public spat between Mr McCrea and deputy leader John McCallister came after the NI21 executive decided to redesignate its MLAs 'other' rather than 'unionist'.

A disgruntled Mr McCallister walked out of Wednesday's tea-time meeting and went straight to the press, where he described the move as "crazy".

"The way in which the [NI21] executive was handled points to a lot of the dysfunctionally in the party," he told the News Letter.

"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."

The south Down MLA said the meeting consisted of a "15 or 20-minute discussion with everyone keen to get back out canvassing."

He said he voted against redesignation, which he said "muddies the waters unnecessarily".

Mr McCallister said he would have preferred a "much wider discussion within the party".

The former Ulster Unionist deputy leader was yesterday unavailable for comment.

But Mr McCrea defended the move and said the party had taken the "correct decision".

He also said he had no regrets about the timing of Tuesday's meeting and subsequent announcement less than 48 hours ahead of an election.

"It was important for us to get the message out before the election -- we wanted to be open and transparent," he said.

The Lagan Valley MLA said he remained committed to leading NI21. Speaking to The Irish News, Ms McKenzie said she was unable to say whether the controversy had damaged her prospects at the

polls -- and the prospects of NI21's 46 council candidates.

"I really don't know how it will affect us to be honest," she said, "I'm not in this to be a career politician. We are trying to do the right thing by offering fresh politics."

The west Belfast businesswoman said the episode had left her disillusioned.

"I'm really disappointed -- not by the people in NI21 but by the way it has played out," she said.

Ms McKenzie said she hoped the party's two MLAs could reconcile their differences.

Asked if she still had confidence in Mr McCrea's leadership, she was hesitant.

"Erm... at this point in time yes... and I still have confidence in John as deputy leader.," she said.

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