Ian Paisley has offered a “profound apology” for conduct which led to a finding of “serious misconduct” over his paid advocacy for a foreign government which had lavished luxury holidays worth more than £50,000 on him and his family.
In a personal statement to the House of Commons this morning, the North Antrim DUP MP quoted the prophet Isaiah and insisted that he had “no ulterior motive for that genuine mistake” not to declare the two expensive holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government.
Mr Paisley did not – as some had speculated may have been the case – pre-empt the possibility of a public petition forcing him to stand down by himself choosing to resign and put himself before his constituents.
In a brief personal statement, Mr Paisley told MPs: “I say sorry and apologise for the failings that were identified in the standards committee report.”
“I acknowledge that registration of such matters and subsequent declarations must be adhered to diligently. I accept my total failure in that matter.
“I have given an unreserved apology to the House and to colleagues, and I take opportunity to do so again from my place here - and I do it, Sir, without qualification.”
Sounding emotional, Mr Paisley went on: “I say sorry, and apologise for the failings that were identified in the Standards Committee report.
“I am disappointed that I was not able to persuade members of the committee of the weight of my arguments on some of the major matters of mitigation - especially on the issue of paid advocacy.
“However, I accept the report. But I do so [with] regret [at] its sanctions.”
He went on: “I take my duties as a Member of Parliament seriously. I believe I conduct myself with colleagues with integrity, with openness - and that is why I have such remorse about the matter as I believe it goes against the grain of who I am, especially how it is portrayed.”
Then, addressing the people of North Antrim, he said: “It is to my constituents, Mr Speaker, who have sent me here since 2010, that I make the profoundest of all apologies. They have honoured me with unwavering support to be their voice and I hope they will continue to have that confidence in me in the future.
“Mr Speaker, we all in this chamber know that in public life if you make mistakes they are amplified - and rightly so. That’s the nature of the job all of us do, and all of us understand that. But I believe in a politics - and I believe in politicians - that can admit human frailty, that can apologise, can mean it, and can move on - because that’s what real life is all about.
“It is often said that it is how we respond to these challenges in our lives that defines who and what we are, and defines our character - and demonstrates to us where the true source of our personal strength rests.
“The eighth century prophet Isaiah said ‘You were angry with me; that anger has turned away. You comfort me. I hope to learn that lesson.”
A report published by the Commons’ Standards Commissioner yesterday showed that Mr Paisley had told her that a visit by himself and his family to an elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka was “very much a working visit” for him as North Antrim MP.
The visit was one of the activities on which the DUP man engaged during multiple trips to Sri Lanka at the expense of the Sri Lankan government.
Mr Paisley told the Commons Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone that the trips were “to gain a wider knowledge of the political and social situation on the ground in Sri Lanka” but added: “There is no doubt that I enjoyed some free time as well.”
Defending his visit to see elephants, Mr Paisley said it involved “an insight that ... would not have been available to tourists”.
An itinerary for one of the Paisleys’ two holidays within a four-month period in 2013 showed that they were also due to visit The Temple of the Tooth, a Buddhist relic.
The itinerary – which was leaked to the Daily Telegraph – included instructions for the Paisleys to be provided with a Mercedes Benz on arrival, a luxury van, top of the range hotels, multiple helicopter trips, a shopping trip and a visit to a national park.
Mr Paisley said that his wife and children came with him because he valued time with his family and did not want to be away from them for any longer than was necessary. He suggested he was invited due to his “well-established knowledge of terrorism and post-conflict activities”.
The Daily Telegraph estimated the cost of the Sri Lankan government’s gifts to Mr Paisley and his family at £100,000. He took issue with that, arguing that they were closer to £50,000.
The most serious finding against Mr Paisley was that he acted as a paid advocate for the Sri Lankan regime by writing to the prime minister David Cameron in 2014, the year after his trips, to ask him to change her position on a UN human rights motion to the benefit of Sri Lanka.
Mr Paisley denied that he had been acting for the regime, saying: “My letter to the PM, if acted upon, would not have conferred an ‘exclusive benefit’ on Sri Lanka. In fact, the beneficiary would have been the UK government who would not have had to pay for the internationalisation of the internal political affairs of another country through the auspices of the UN.”
But the Commons Standards Committee said: “We do not find this argument persuasive. On any reasonable view of the letter to the prime minister, it was lobbying the UK government to take action which would confer a significant diplomatic benefit on the government of Sri Lanka.”
The committee said that Mr Paisley “has not disputed the key findings of fact in the commissioner’s report and has apologised for having failed to register the visits”, despite disputing that he had undertaken “paid advocacy”.
The committee went on to set out the significance of the context in which Mr Paisley had written to the prime minister: “The Sri Lankan government was under considerable diplomatic pressure at this time and it is reasonable to assume that it was actively seeking the support of parliamentarians in key UN member states to argue its case with their own governments.”
Mr Paisley said he had “no hesitation in apologising for my mistake of failing to register. There was no malice, or plan, on my part that was of any benefit to me not to register this. I have dutifully registered all other visits before and after and clearly made a mistake on this occasion in March and July in 2013.”
But, drawing attention to Mr Paisley’s experience and that he had registered other trips, Mrs Stone said he “must have been aware that there are particular sensitivities about accepting gifts and hospitality from foreign governments”.
She added: “It is difficult, therefore, to avoid the conclusion that the reason why the third visit was registered and the two earlier ones were not, was that Mr Paisley was conscious of the potential embarrassment that would be caused to him were it to become publicly known that he had accepted very expensive hospitality, for himself and his family, from a foreign government accused of serious human rights violations.”
Mr Paisley responded to the report via a statement from his lawyer, Paul Tweed, who said Mr Paisley was “considering” unspecified legal action against The Daily Telegraph, over the “sensationalised” way in which it broke the story last year.
More to follow...