Political news

Ian Paisley recall petition exonerated by electoral watchdog

Ian Paisley was not forced to contest a by-election after the recall petition fell 444 signatures short

THE outcome of the Ian Paisley recall petition would not have been any different if more venues had been opened for North Antrim constituents to sign it, the electoral watchdog has concluded.

The first recall petition in Westminster's history was opened weeks after Mr Paisley had been suspended from the House of Commons for an unprecedented 30 sitting days.

The DUP MP had failed to declare two 2013 luxury family holidays to Sri Lanka paid for by its government. Mr Paisley was also found to have carried out paid advocacy on behalf of the south Asia island's regime, writing to the then British Prime Minister David Cameron urging him not to support a UN investigation into human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

The recall petition, which ran from August 8 for six weeks, was available to sign at three venues in Mr Paisley's North Antrim constituency, as well as by post.

The shamed MP avoided contesting a by-election because only 7,099 people – 9.4 per cent of the registered electorate – signed the petition which needed 7,543 signatures to force Mr Paisley's resignation.

During the petition process and in the aftermath of September's result, the Electoral Office was criticised for operating just three voting centres when a maximum of 10 were permitted.

But in its report on the process, the Electoral Commission concluded that having more centres would not have affected the result.

The commission found overall that the petition was well run, with some lessons to be learned.

It identified a number of practical issues that it said would help voters, campaigners and administrators at any future petition, including whether a signing period of six weeks is appropriate and how electors could get more information on recall petitions.

Total spending by Sinn Féin and Alliance, the two registered campaigners, was £4,178.

But Sinn Féin North Antrim MLA Philip McGuigan said the watchdog's report "defies all logic and the evidence on the ground".

He said the Electoral Office should have opened more venues.

"The lack of an effective public awareness campaign and worker-friendly opening hours were also major concerns that the Electoral Commission have not satisfactorily addressed," he said.

"At the time of the petition, a number of political parties reported that members of the public were reluctant to attend the signing centres because their reasons for being there would have been easily identified – did the Electoral Commission actually speak to any of those people or did they simply talk to those who had carried out the petition and who were hardly likely to criticise their own work?"

Mr McGuigan said the Electoral Commission had "glossed over" many serious concerns.

Last month, Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann told The Irish News that having just three venues across an expansive, rural constituency discouraged people from signing the petition.

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