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Electoral Office defends plan to open just three venues for Ian Paisley petition

Suspended DUP MP Ian Paisley
Brendan Hughes

THE Electoral Office has defended its decision to open just three venues where voters in North Antrim can sign a petition to oust Ian Paisley.

The recall petition – the first in UK parliamentary history – will launch on Wednesday to decide whether the suspended DUP MP must resign his seat and force a by-election.

Sinn Féin and Alliance have confirmed they plan to register as campaigners to encourage people to sign the petition.

The UUP has ruled out the move, while the SDLP, Green Party and TUV have yet to confirm whether they will register.

Legislation allows for up to 10 locations in the constituency where the six-week petition can be signed.

The Electoral Office announced just three – the Joey Dunlop Leisure Centre in Ballymoney, the Seven Towers Leisure Centre in Ballymena, and Sheskburn House Recreation Centre in Ballycastle.

Some parties expressed concern, fearing that opening only three venues could impede the democratic process.

But chief electoral officer Virginia McVea defended the decision, saying that voters have more time than in an election, and people can also apply to sign by post or proxy.

"I understand the parties have their views but it's important to remember this is not one day – it's six weeks. It's a very significant difference in time," she said.

Ms McVea said only currently registered voters can take part, and similar to a polling station they must bring photographic ID to the signing venue.

She said voters applying to sign by post do not need to give an explanation for choosing this method, and that the application turnaround "should be fairly rapid" as long as forms are correctly completed.

Last month Mr Paisley received an unprecedented 30-day suspension from the House of Commons and was suspended from his party after failing to declare two luxury family holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government.

Legislation introduced in 2016 means any MP jailed or suspended from parliament for more than 10 days can be ousted if 10 per cent of their constituency's electorate sign a petition.

A total of 75,478 people are registered to vote in North Antrim – meaning 7,547 signatures will trigger a by-election.

Parties wanting to campaign for people to sign the petition must register with the Electoral Office, and will be given a spending limit for their campaign activities.

UUP leader Robin Swann said his party will not register as a campaigner, but he plans to sign the petition. TUV leader Jim Allister also said he would sign it.

The petition, which will run from August 8 to September 19, will be available for signing on weekdays from 9am to 5pm, as well as September 6 and 13 until 9pm.

Rather than being announced at a count centre, the Commons speaker will be notified of the result which will then be issued through public notices. Ms McVea expects the result to be issued on September 20.

Applications to sign by post or proxy are available via the Electoral Office website, eoni.org.uk.

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