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Sinn Féin criticise DUP's decision to readmit Ian Paisley after recall petition falls short

Ian Paisley greets a wellwisher in Ballymena today 
Press Association

SINN Féin has criticised the DUP's decision to readmit Ian Paisley to the party - saying he should have been sacked.

The North Antrim MP was suspended from membership of the party his father founded on July 24 following publication of a report by the House of Commons Committee on Standards and pending further investigation into his conduct.

The parliamentary watchdog had suspended him for 30 sitting days for failing to declare two family holidays in 2013 paid for by the Sri Lankan government.

It also found that a year after the luxury holidays, Mr Paisley lobbied then prime minister David Cameron not to support a UN probe into alleged Sri Lankan human rights abuses.

The sanction triggered Westminster's first ever recall petition, where the voters of North Antrim were given a six-week window to sign their name in three public venues if they wanted Mr Paisley to stand down.

The MP would have faced a by-election if 10% of the electorate - 7,543 voters - signed the petition. However, it was announced early yesterday that only 7,099 people (9.4%) put down their names.

Speaking after the announcement, Mr Paisley thanked the voters of North Antrim for their "unwavering support" and his family and "true friends" for sticking by him after he narrowly avoided a by-election.

Listen: Ian Paisley speaks to Q Radio following this morning's announcement


The former Stormont minister later changed his Twitter biography to claim that he received "90.6 per cent support" of constituents in the petition.

He also told the BBC that "90.6% of them said we're keeping you big fella - we like ya."

"People said we were going to oust Paisley. He's out on his ear. This was their big chance and as it turned out my constituents knew better than the propaganda that was being fed to them by others."

 

He said he has been punished with a 30-day suspension from his job but the people who put him in the House of Commons have said "we have accepted your apology".

"I have had my salary docked for that period. I'm facing a very severe financial period. I'm still doing my job as an MP," he said.

"I can't win in terms of my personality. Some people will take the view that his confidence and his self assurance that people want in their public representative is portrayed by others as arrogance."

Mr Paisley also revealed he has made three complaints to police over allegations electoral law was broken in the failed recall petition to oust him.

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A DUP spokesman confirmed this afternoon that Mr Paisley is no longer suspended from the party.

"The internal processes surrounding these matters have been completed," he said.

"On Tuesday September 18, Mr Paisley was readmitted to membership of the party following a suspension of 57 days and upon re-admission he is subject to a number of conditions, including a ban on holding office within the party for 12 months.

"The party will be making no further comment on these matters."

Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill criticised the DUP's decision, saying Mr Paisley should have been sacked.

"Ian Paisley received lavish holidays from the Sri Lankan regime and then lobbied to prevent the UN investigating war crimes against the Tamil people by that same regime.

"He displayed a gross lack of integrity in public office through these actions. Despite this, there was no hint of an apology from the DUP to either the people of North Antrim or the Tamil population.

"Instead, he has been welcomed back into the DUP fold.

Michelle O’Neill said Ian Paisley should have been sacked. Picture by Mal McCann

"That represents another failure on behalf of the DUP and is an effective endorsement of his actions.

"The DUP is very fond of pontificating to others but when it came to dealing with its own wrongdoing, it failed to take the appropriate action, which would have been to sack Ian Paisley."

Three centres were opened in North Antrim for the last six weeks to give voters the opportunity to sign the recall petition. Constituents were also able to put their name down via post.

Northern Ireland's Chief Electoral Officer Virginia McVea announced the outcome in Belfast around 1.25am on Thursday morning after a count that commenced at midnight.

"The petition has not been successful," she said.

Ms McVea communicated the outcome to Speaker John Bercow's office in London before making the announcement. Mr Paisley, who was not there in person, was informed by text message.

Afterwards Ms McVea rejected criticism that has been levelled at her by Sinn Fein for only opening three centres where people could sign the petition, when the maximum permitted was 10.

She said there had been "unprecedented" access afforded, with the longest ever electoral period in the region and voters able to access postal ballots on demand.

"There has never been access to an electoral event like that before," said told the Press Association.

"And the three designated places were the three hubs within the North Antrim constituency. Legislation allows for one up to a maximum in any constituency of ten across the UK and we decided on three."

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said it was clear there was no public appetite for a by-election.

"I respect that outcome," he said.

"However I would caution Ian Paisley not to see this as some sort of victory or endorsement of his actions in acting as a paid advocate for a foreign government and bringing North Antrim and the House of Commons into disrepute.

"Rather I would urge him to use the time that he has been suspended from Parliament and the DUP, to reflect on the severity of what he has done and the embarrassment he has brought on Northern Ireland. He should demonstrate some humility."

Mr Paisley's Commons ban has left current Prime Minister Theresa May shorn of one of her 10 DUP MP confidence and supply allies during a period that could witness several crucial Brexit votes.

It has also given the DUP another headache at a time when the party is under intense scrutiny at public inquiry hearings in Northern Ireland examining its handling of the botched green energy scheme that brought down Stormont powersharing.

An investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards found the cost of the hospitality afforded Mr Paisley and his family may have been "significantly more" than his £50,000 estimate.

It found the Sri Lankan holidays included business-class air travel, accommodation at first-class hotels, helicopter trips and visits to tourist attractions for the North Antrim MP and his wider family.

The trips also included meeting with Sri Lankan governmental figures.

Mr Paisley's threshold for registering such hospitality in 2013 was around £660.

In March 2014, Mr Paisley wrote to Mr Cameron to lobby against a proposed United Nations resolution setting up an international investigation into alleged human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

In the wake of the watchdog report, Mr Paisley apologised for what he described as an "unintentional failure" to declare the holidays.

In the 2017 general election, Mr Paisley retained his North Antrim seat with a landslide 20,000-plus majority, securing nearly 59% of the vote.

Sinn Fein's North Antrim Assembly member Philip McGuigan said: "Ian Paisley's party leadership have yet to condemn these actions or to confirm whether or not he still has their support as MP for North Antrim.

"That is a failure of leadership.

"They need to come out of their hiding place and address the very serious issues at the heart of this scandal."

SDLP Councillor Declan O’Loan said: "It would have been a better outcome for democracy and political progress here if the outcome had been different.

"Many were put off by a belief that Ian Paisley would win a by-election anyway. The weak support from unionist parties for the petition is further evidence of our divisions - they felt that going against Paisley would ultimately rebound on them.

"Unfortunately we have to rely only on the sanction imposed by the House of Commons to demonstrate that Ian Paisley’s conduct was unacceptable."

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