Northern Ireland news

Ian Paisley's opponents say unprecedented petition is about 'integrity'

Sinn Féin's Philip McGuigan at the Ballymoney's Joey Dunlop Leisure Centre yesterday. Picture by Mal McCann

A bid to force a by-election which could unseat Ian Paisley is about restoring trust in politicians, one of his leading critics said.

The first ever recall petition opened yesterday after the shamed North Antrim MP was suspended from Westminster for 30 sitting days over his failure to declare two family holidays in 2013 paid for by the Sri Lankan government.

He later lobbied on behalf of the south Asian island's regime, writing to then prime minister David Cameron the following year urging him not to support a United Nations investigation into its human rights abuses.

Mr Paisley could become the first MP to lose his seat under legislation introduced by Britain's former coalition government following the Westminster expenses scandal – although the DUP has a significant majority in North Antrim.

Should 10 per cent of the registered electorate, or 7,543 people, sign the petition, then a by-election will be held.

Mr Paisley is currently suspended from the DUP pending a party investigation and if loses the backing of the north's largest unionist party, his prospects for re-election would be damaged.

Speaking yesterday morning in Ballymoney at one of three designated venues for signing the petition, Sinn Féin's MLA Philip McGuigan said: "This is an issue of integrity in government, it is not an orange and green issue.

"This is not even about nationalism versus unionism – this is an issue about trust in your politicians that they will do their jobs with integrity."

Mr Paisley has already apologised for what he said was his "unintentional failure" to register Sri Lankan government's hospitality, which he estimated was worth £50,000.

He has vowed to fight any by-election campaign.

The confidence and supply deal signed with the Tories last year means the DUP's 10 pro-Brexit MPs are crucial allies of the Theresa May's minority government.

The recall petition will be open for signing for six weeks and can be signed at centres in Ballymena, Ballymoney and Ballycastle.

SDLP councillor Declan O'Loan said Mr Paisley's conduct was a "matter of great concern to the public".

"It is very important to stand up for integrity in politics, and I encourage all electors in North Antrim to sign the petition," he said.

Alliance North Antrim representative Patricia O'Lynn said the people of North Antrim needed to "make a stand for transparent politics".

"The recall petition process is only in play because Ian Paisley did not do the right thing and resign his position," she said.

"He has let down both himself and every person in North Antrim with his actions to date – not only did he not declare his paid-for Sri Lankan holidays but he has still to explain why he then subsequently lobbied against a UN resolution on the country."

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