Northern Ireland news

Trickle of signatories marks historic recall petition's opening day

The Seven Towers Leisure Centre in Ballymena is one of three venues where a petition to oust Ian Paisley can be signed. Picture by Mal McCann

If history was made yesterday morning at Ballymoney's Joey Dunlop Leisure Centre it was news to the young mums and dads dropping their kids off at summer scheme.

Many were aware of the petition which could oust sitting MP Ian Paisley – those on the North Antrim electoral register would have received a letter this week outlining how they can exercise their democratic right in these unprecedented circumstances.

However, despite all the recent hype, none appeared in any hurry to sign it. Nor did they appear especially impressed by the Sinn Féin B-listers who turned up to 'doughnut' around local MLA Philip McGuigan as he spoke to the sizeable media entourage outside the leisure centre.

 Sinn Féin North Antrim assembly member Philip McGuigan with a party delegation outside the petition recall centre in Ballymoney

The magic figure Mr Paisley's opponents are hoping to reach is 7,543 but we're going to have to wait until September 20 before the final tally is revealed.

The six-week window in which Mr Paisley's constituents have to put their name to first ever recall petition in UK parliamentary history has created a bit of a problem for media personnel, who are keen to gauge the number of people who might be expected to sign it.

Estimating such a figure proved impossible for reporters assembled in Ballymoney, who alongside photographers and cameramen, almost outnumbered members of the public using the leisure centre facilities. Exit polls are banned under the legislation, as is the publication of petition signatories, even with their consent. Therefore, the number that ventured into the nondescript room inside the Joey Dunlop Leisure Centre to add their name to the petition in the hours immediately after it opened will forever be a mystery.

In Ballycastle, the room set aside as the designated 'Petition Signing Place' was much grander – the council chamber in the Sheskburn Recreation Centre no less. However, its spaciousness only underlined the fact that a mere trickle of signatories had arrived throughout the morning. A peek through the door revealed three middle-aged women sitting at a desk doing their best to amuse themselves. A matter of feet away stood a booth which, even in this nationalist part of North Antrim, had remained redundant for much of the day.

If, as earlier claimed, there were queues to sign the petition, they surely were no longer than a handful and in all likelihood made up of a particularly zealous breed of political campaigner.

A visit to the third and final venue for signing the petition – Ballymena's Seven Towers Leisure Centre – confirmed the suspicion that each building's architectural merits played no part whatsoever in their selection. The designated room here was situated in the main reception area and arguably, anybody signing the petition would be easily identified as they entered or left.

In common with their counterparts in Ballymoney and Ballycastle, the patrons of the Seven Towers Leisure Centre were largely oblivious to the significance of what was taking place as they headed to their pilates and line-dancing classes.

Rest assured, the excitement will be palpable when the chief electoral officer Virginia McVea draws breath ahead of announcing the final number of signatories but for those staffing the three cumbersomely named 'Petition Signing Places', it's going to be a long six weeks.

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