Electoral officer defends Ian Paisley petition locations

Ian Paisley
Ian Paisley

Northern Ireland’s chief electoral officer has defended her decision to only place the petition to unseat Ian Paisley at three locations rather than the maximum 10.

The Recall of MPs Act 2015, under which the North Antrim MP is facing the potential of being removed from his position, gives considerable discretion to Northern Ireland’s chief electoral officer, Virginia McVea, in deciding how many locations will be made available to sign the petition.

She has opted for the petition to be placed in North Antrim’s three main towns, with it being open for signing from next Wednesday at the Joey Dunlop Leisure Centre in Ballymoney, the Seven Towers Leisure Centre in Ballymena and the Sheskburn House Recreation Centre in Ballycastle.

It will remain open to sign for six weeks, until September 19 and there will be evening signings on September 6 and 13, when the petition can be signed up until 9pm. Unlike in an election, any voter can ask to vote by post or proxy.

Yesterday the chief electoral officer faced criticism from many of Mr Paisley’s rivals who argued that she should have made the petition more widely available within the largely rural constituency.

UUP leader and North Antirm MLA Robin Swann criticised the three locations as “totally inadequate for a constituency the size of North Antrim”. He also expressed concern about the “restricted opening times of 9am-5pm” on weekdays.

Mr Swann said that his party would not be registering to campaign for Mr Paisley’s removal but said he would be signing the petition and would encourage anyone who thought what Mr Paisley did was wrong to do likewise.

Sinn Féin MLA Philip McGuigan said the decision was “simply not good enough” while Alliance’s Patricia O’Lynn said the decision was “disappointing” and added that Alliance would be registering as a campaigner.

Ms McVea defended her decision, telling the BBC that she “could have opened one venue or I could have opened 10” under the legislation.

She added: “This runs for a lengthy period - six weeks and during that period I determined that it would be reasonable to expect people to be able to reach these three venues.”

Unlike an election where polling staff are only required for a single day, the six weeks involved means that each additional location would significantly increase the cost of the process to the public purse.

Last night the target for unseating Mr Paisley became slightly easier to attain after the Electoral Office reduced the target from 7.547 to 7,543 to take account of dead voters and those who will not be 18 by the end of the signing period.

The recall process was automatically triggered when Mr Paisley was given a suspension of 30 sitting days – the longest on record since at least 1949 – over “serious misconduct”. He took free luxury holidays from the Sri Lankan government and then lobbied on behalf of the regime without declaring the gifts.

The DUP veteran apologised for not declaring the holidays but insisted to Parliament’s standards commissioner that his letter asking the prime minister to change UK policy at the UN to that favoured by Sri Lanka did not amount to lobbying for the regime.