Ian Paisley set to face electoral challenge from pro-EU unionist party
SUSPENDED DUP MP Ian Paisley looks set to face a challenge from a new anti-Brexit unionist party if a by-election is called in North Antrim in the coming weeks.
The Irish News can reveal that the Both Unions Party has registered with the Electoral Commission just days before the outcome is announced of the UK parliament's first ever recall petition.
Chief Electoral Officer Virginia McVea is expected to reveal the total number of signatories to the petition in the early hours of next Thursday.
The centre right Both Unions Party – a reference to the European Union and the union of Britain and Northern Ireland – advocates a second referendum on EU membership, believing that Brexit will precipitate the break-up of the United Kingdom.
It is led by Dirk Hazell, the former leader of the pro-EU Alliance EPP: European People's Party UK.
The party's other backers include former Tory MEP John Stevens and Newry native Geoffrey Martin, the one-time European Union ambassador to the UK.
At present, the London-based Both Unions Party doesn't to plan to contest elections in Britain and is specifically targetting North Antrim.
The party personnel are understood to accept that they are highly unlikely to top the poll in Mr Paisley's pro-Brexit constituency but are nonetheless keen to publicise their campaign for a second referendum on EU membership.
Mr Stevens, who served as a Conservative MEP for a decade up to 1999, has spent recent weeks in the north scoping the potential for standing against the shamed DUP MP.
The former MEP has had meetings with several Ulster Unionists about the potential for enlisting the party's support in North Antrim. However, The Irish News understands the response so far from Robin Swann's party has been tepid.
A by election will be called in North Antrim if ten per cent of the constituency's registered electorate – 7,543 people – sign the recall petition.
The petition, which opens for six weeks, is scheduled to close on Wednesday at 5 pm. The outcome is expected to be revealed in the early hours of the following day.
The recall petition was called after Mr Paisley was suspended from the House of Commons in July for an unprecedented 30 sitting days.
The North Antrim MP's suspension came after he failed to declare two luxury family holidays in Sri Lanka paid for by its government.
He later lobbied on behalf of the south Asian island's regime, urging the then prime minister David Cameron not to support a UN probe into human rights abuses during the long-running conflict between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil separatists.
Bookie Paddy Power is offering odds of 1/4 on the petition reaching the necessary threshold to trigger a by-election.