Ian Paisley recall petition: DUP MP begins 30 day suspension over Sri Lanka holiday scandal

Northern Irish MP says he will stand in by-election, which will be called if 7,543 people sign petition

Ben Kelly
Wednesday 15 August 2018 08:00
Ian Paisley MP apologises for expensing two extravagent family holidays to Sri Lanka

DUP MP Ian Paisley is facing a possible by-election in his constituency seat of North Antrim in Northern Ireland.

It comes after he was given an unprecedented 30 day suspension from the House of Commons after failing to register two family holidays which were paid for by the Sri Lankan government.

He also then wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron asking him to lobby against a UN resolution on Sri Lanka

Mr Paisley had already apologised for what he said was his "unintentional failure" to register the hospitality, which he estimated was worth £50,000.

What is the recall procedure?

Paisley’s suspension triggered a recall procedure. This means that should 10% of the electorate, or 7,543 people, sign a petition then a by-election will be held in North Antrim.

The first recall petition is to open today, and will remain open for six weeks. There will be no rolling update on the amount of signatures gathered. Instead, constituents will only be notified as and when the required number has been reached.

Mr Paisley has said he would stand in a by-election if one is called, but it is unclear whether or not he would be standing as a DUP candidate, or as an independent. The party, which was founded by his father in 1971, has also suspended him temporarily.

He remains under investigation by the DUP, though the party has refused to be drawn on whether this is regarding the Sri Lanka issue, or another matter entirely. An investigation into payment for a table at a Ballymena hotel dinner he hosted in 2017 is believed to be ongoing.

Twice in recent weeks, DUP leader Arlene Foster has refused point-blank to say that Paisley enjoys her support, and it is widely believed that the pair represent two differing factions within the party. She may be unwilling to go too hard on Paisley lest he draw support away from her own fragile leadership.

Paisley could also resign, prompting a by-election of his own accord, before such time as the petition reaches the necessary number of signatures.

Would Ian Paisley win in a by-election?

Paisley will be a difficult figure to oust. He took over the North Antrim seat from his late father in 2010, and earned a 20,000 strong majority in the 2017 general election.

In that poll, Sinn Fein were just shy of 8,000 votes, and they have been spearheading the campaign to oust Paisley – registering as a campaign group ahead of the recall petition. They have turned down an offer from the SDLP to run an agreed anti-Brexit candidate as a cross party effort to unseat Paisley.

Support for him as a local representative is overwhelmingly strong, and even among constituents who have been heard to criticise him on local radio shows and TV interviews, many will undoubtedly vote for him again.

Sinn Fein have little chance of toppling Paisley, but they can put a dent in his majority, and their campaign to unseat him will highlight nationally their ongoing crusade against what they see as DUP arrogance and corruption – the very reasoning they gave for collapsing the Northern Ireland Executive 18 months ago.

It would seem the only possible way Paisley’s re-election could be at risk is if he runs as an independent, and the DUP run another candidate, hence diluting the vote. Even in this scenario though, it is likely he will be returned.

What does this mean for Theresa May’s government?

The Conservatives govern with the help of the DUP’s ten votes in parliament, and while they can limp along with one less, we have seen in recent weeks that some Brexit votes are being won – or lost – with as little as three or four votes, meaning Paisley’s vote does count.

However, even if he is returned as an independent, he will continue to vote as a passionate Brexiteer.

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