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Opinion: Ian Paisley's facing into a possible by-election ... he can be heartened by his likely re-election

As Ian Paisley Jr endures a 30-day suspension from the House of Commons, Thomas Muinzer writes that it’s likely he’ll win back his seat in a possible by-election.

Thomas Muinzer Freelance writer and lecturer in law

IAN RICHARD KYLE Paisley Jr is the son of the late Reverend Ian Paisley. His father was a man who needs no introduction. Paisley Sr founded the DUP and represented Northern Ireland’s North Antrim constituency as an MP for an immense 4 decades. Paisley Jr then took over the seat, becoming MP for North Antrim in 2010 and onward up to the present time, carrying the torch of the family legacy with him.

As such, the constituency has a remarkable symbolic quality about it, emblematic as a Paisleyite DUP bastion.

The North Antrim seat at Westminster is now likely opening for contest again, since it has come to light that Paisley Jr accepted two luxury family holidays from the Sri Lankan government, failed to declare them, and set about lobbying then Prime Minister David Cameron to change tack on aspects of Sri Lankan policy.

The standards watchdog has concluded that he “brought the Parliament into disrepute”, and he is currently suspended from the House of Commons for 30 sitting days.

Since the Recall of MPs Act 2015, a suspension of 10 days or more triggers a “recall petition”. This petition is currently open for a 6 week period, and Paisley Jr will lose his seat at Westminster if 10% of his constituency electorate sign it. In the event, a by-election will then be held.

There can be little doubt that the 10% figure, which requires 7,543 North Antrim signatures, will be reached. Although the DUP received a massive 58.9% of the vote to win the most recent 2017 North Antrim constituency election (Sinn Féin garnered only 16.3% in second place, followed by the Ulster Unionist Party on 7.2%), non-DUP parties should secure the 10% threshold fairly comfortably if their supporters turn out, which is likely.

So, a by-election seems fairly inescapable as things stand.

In the event, Paisley Jr has stated that he will stand for re-election. In my view, he can be heartened by a forthcoming re-election win. A few observations will help to clarify why.

The DUP has long been riddled by an array of scandals, and scarcely a senior member of the party is untouched by some outlandish story or other. Paisley Jr is no different.

Claims 

The primary reason that Paisley Jr ran for his Westminster seat in the first place in 2010 was that he had been a junior minister in the Northern Ireland government, but was compelled to resign over cash and cronyism allegations connecting him to an affluent North Antrim constituent, property developer Seymour Sweeney. 

Although ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing by a Stormont ombudsman’s investigation, which found that he had not broken Northern Ireland Assembly rules, it came to light that he had purchased a holiday home from Sweeney in a period when he was also pressing Tony Blair and others to support Sweeney’s intentions to build a private visitors’ centre at the Giant’s Causeway. 

It also transpired that he and his father had been due to rent a joint office funded by public money, reported to be at the startlingly high rate of approximately £56,000 per annum. It was revealed that this office was initially registered to a company directed by Sweeney, until Paisley Jr’s father-in-law Jim Curry replaced him as director.

While these sorts of revelations tend to be enough to bury normal political careers, all bets are off with the DUP. Thus, Paisley Jr resigned from the Northern Irish government in 2008, and soon after ran with enormous success for his current North Antrim seat as a Westminster MP.

Although difficult to quantify, it may be true that the DUP’s Tailcoat of Scandal attaches itself most consistently to Arlene Foster, DUP leader. ‘RHIgate’ is well known– the recent ‘cash for ash’ scandal, where a government department led by Foster in 2012 introduced a bungled renewable heat scheme that paid out more in taxpayer-funded subsidies than the cost of fuel being burnt.

This ‘fuel’ theme was reminiscent of Foster’s efforts in 2011 as a government minister to promote fracking in Northern Ireland. A fracking exploration zone was designated in County Fermanagh that year by the devolved government, which had the potential to become lucrative for landowners should fracking ultimately go ahead. The Supreme Court has clarified in Star Energy Basin Ltd v Bocardo (2010) that there will be payments for land rights at fracking access points. While significant payments may be offered potentially for fracking into a landowner’s property below the earth in Northern Ireland, a moratorium on fracking is now in place and so fracking has yet to arise, meaning a figure cannot be put on such payments in practice currently.

The leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland revealed in 2011 that 54 acres of the designated exploration zone were in fact owned by Foster’s husband. She responded by admitting that she did have an interest to declare, then merely ignored the calls for her resignation.

Party  

As to Paisley Jr, in light of his Sri Lankan expenses and lobbying escapades, Foster’s party has suspended him pending an investigation. There is little or no question amongst serious commentators that he will be cleared, and will stand for the party again if the likely North Antrim by-election goes ahead.

Due to the gravity of Paisley Jr’s dereliction of duty, and setting this in the context of his and his senior colleagues’ ongoing roll-call of bungling and controversy, it is certainly right that he should suffer consequences at the ballot box and fail in being re-elected.

But the DUP is a special kettle of fish. Its culture of impunity from suffering the consequences of astonishing political behaviour, married with the voting base’s tendency towards putting ethno-ideology above selecting politicians who do their job appropriately, means that all serious predictions must point to Paisley Jr’s confident return to Westminster after a triumphant re-election.

Thomas Muinzer is a freelance writer and Lecturer in Law at Stirling University.

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Thomas Muinzer  / Freelance writer and lecturer in law

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