Dion Houston, News Editor.
The first sign of weakness in a North Antrim staple. The Paisley family has been synonymous with the North Antrim constituency since it began representing the area at Westminster in 1970, perhaps more so than any representative in any constituency across the United Kingdom. Since defeating the incumbent Henry Clark in that election, Ian Paisley Sr. and then, from 2010, Ian Paisley Jr. have held a tight control on the seat, often surpassing 50% of total vote share in General Elections. But those who have made it their life’s work to oppose the Paisley clan may have been handed a lifeline in a seemingly impossible task of displacing the monolith. The reason for their optimism? Mr. Paisley’s brazen indulgences in the face of his constituents, which, in the opinion of this article, is the reason that every single one of those constituents, DUP hardliners or not, should sign a petition forcing Ian Paisley Jr. to resign his seat and stand for re-election in a by-election.
The indulgences in question were bribes in the form of three holidays, which were showered upon Mr. Paisley by the Sri Lankan government. In return Mr. Paisley lobbied then Prime Minister, David Cameron, to reject a United Nations resolution, which called for an investigation into human rights abuses by that government and the separatists who they had been engaged in a bloody civil war with. Now, setting aside the blatant disregard for human rights which Mr. Paisley has demonstrated, it reveals the disdain he has shown for his constituents in accepting holidays on behalf of foreign governments, rather than concerning himself with the worrying trend of de-industrialisation in North Antrim, pushing many out of work. It was not the first time either that Mr. Paisley has found trouble with ethics breaches. He has had troubling scandals involving property development more than once. He has also faced attention for being a representative at Stormont while also a paid researcher for his MP father. Most recently he has been under investigation by the election committee for fundraisers he hosted which were sponsored by the local council. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes Mr. Paisley’s corruption. There are further allegations which are yet unproven, but nonetheless cling to the MP like adhesive.
In almost any other constituency across the United Kingdom, the neglect and general indifference shown by Mr Paisley would have been more than enough for him to lose his seat. But things are different in North Antrim, where your surname means more than your political intellect. His father, the founder of the DUP and the staunch defender of Unionism, Rev. Ian Paisley Sr., made North Antrim his political home, despite hailing from Armagh. On his part, the move was one which rewarded he and his family greatly. The constituency has a blend of working class unionists who live in the towns such as Ballymena and Antrim and fear losing their manufacturing jobs to Catholics or Eastern European immigrants and rural Protestants who tend to swing much more conservative than their urban counterparts. This blend, which the DUP have exploited skilfully, along with a general attitude of apathy from the minority Catholic population has made North Antrim fruitful for the Paisley’s and Unionism alike. When Ian Jr. took over in 2010, it was the case of rinse and repeat.
This is where the issues arise. Like a company without a competitor in their industry, the Paisley’s have become complacent in North Antrim. With nothing to worry about in terms of losing his seat, Mr. Paisley does not have to provide much, if anything at all, in terms of representation for his constituents. The Paisley scandal encapsulates the negligence shown by him towards his constituents. He is not a representative of the cabinet, and therefore has no influence over foreign policy matters. Despite being keen to discuss issues in Sri Lanka, it seems he is less keen to discuss pertinent issues to his constituents. The Independent reported that, “between 2010 and 2015, he only attended and/or voted in about 34 per cent of votes, one of the very worst rates in parliament. Despite this, in 2012-2013, he claimed more expenses than any other MP – £232,000”.
The piece of legislation which has allowed this drama to unfold is the 2015 Recall of MPs Act, which, as the summary on the parliament website states:
‘Provides for a recall petition to be triggered if a Member is sentenced to a prison term or is suspended from the House for at least 21 sitting days. If either occurred, the Speaker would give notice to a petition officer, who in turn would give notice to parliamentary electors in the constituency… A petition would then be open for signing for eight weeks. If at the end of that period at least 10 per cent of eligible electors had signed the petition, the seat would be declared vacant and a by-election would follow. The Member who was recalled could stand in the by-election.’
Because of an ethics committee investigation into Ian Paisley’s actions, he was suspended from parliament for thirty days, the longest suspension faced by any MP since the World War Two. Hence, the triggering of this legislation, which allows for a by-election if 10% of constituents sign a petition. In North Antrim, 10% equates to 7,543 constituents signing the petition. Mr. Paisley has apologised and admitted it was with ‘profound personal regret and deep personal embarrassment’ that he did not declare these gifts, despite originally threatening to sue to the Daily Telegraph, the organisation who broke the news.
The crux of the matter is than Ian Paisley committed corruption by accepting these holidays from a foreign government, which means Mr Paisley should be forced to fight a by-election. The problem is that Mr. Paisley’s indifference towards his constituents is matched with their general indifference towards politics of any form. In such a rural constituency, many feel left behind by the politicians at Stormont, let alone Westminster. So, for many, a corrupt Ian Paisley is still the best choice to represent them. At least he is an ardent Brexiteer, which means something in a constituency where Brexit was supported by 62.2% of the constituents who voted in the 2016 referendum.
The fact that Mr. Paisley would be an over-whelming favourite to win any by-election as a result of this process is not the point. Regardless of Mr. Paisley’s chances in subsequent by-election, the constituents of North Antrim have a chance to show Mr. Paisley they are watching his actions and matters like this will not be taken lightly by the people of North Antrim. For too long these constituents have been treated like a door mat by the Paisleys, who are generally able to get away with anything they like. At least a sliver of justice would be meted out and possibly a second thought would be given to such an offer in the future from Mr. Paisley.
So, fellow constituents of North Antrim, Ian Paisley supporters or not, I urge you to add your name to this petition. Show that you will not be held as complicit in Mr. Paisley’s attempts at self-aggrandisement and indulgence and that there are consequences for taking your constituents for granted. We deserve better than that, even if it is just from a more thoughtful and introspective Ian Paisley. As the great French statesmen Charles De Gaulle announced, “Politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians”. As North Antrim goes, politics is too serious a matter to be left to Ian Paisley Jr.
The petition will run from 8th August to 19th September and will be available to be signed in the Joey Dunlop Leisure Centre in Ballymoney, the Seven Towers Leisure Centre in Ballymena and the Sheskburn House Recreation Centre in Ballycastle between 9am-5pm Monday to Friday.