Ian Paisley has denounced what he described as “defamatory inferences” in a national newspaper article which alleged that he and his family received £100,000 in lavish holidays from a foreign government.
The North Antrim MP referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards over the claim that he had broken Commons’ rules by failing to declare the alleged gifts.
The office of the commissioner – who polices the rules by which MPs are bound – said that it was now for the commissioner to decide whether there was sufficient evidence to commence an investigation.
Last night the DUP’s Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, said that Mr Paisley had “given a very robust response” to the allegations and that it was now a matter for the standards commissioner.
Asked on BBC Radio Ulster’s Inside Politics programme if Mr Paisley would remain a part of the DUP team at Westminster, he said: “Yes...oh yes.”
The allegations emerged late on Thursday night in the first edition of The Daily Telegraph, which alleged that not only had Mr Paisley and his family received two holidays in the space of three months from the Sri Lankan government but that he had failed to declare the apparent gift in the Commons Register of Members’ Interests, something the paper said “appears to be in breach of parliamentary rules, which state that funded trips that cost more than £300 must be declared”.
The former Stormont junior minister has declared a series of other trips to Sri Lanka, a beautiful holiday destination but a country which has a controversial record on human rights.
The newspaper alleged that in discussions with Sri Lankan officials, Mr Paisley had offered to help their country broker an oil deal, saying that he had “significant arrangements with national oil suppliers” in Oman and Nigeria.
The paper said that it had put the allegations to Mr Paisley prior to publication and he had declined to comment.
Mr Paisley had been due to appear on BBC Newsnight on Thursday night to discuss religion and politics.
However, The Daily Telegraph article appeared online before the programme began and the BBC said that Mr Paisley had pulled out of the discussion.
Eighteen minutes before midnight on Thursday night, the son of the DUP’s founder tweeted to say: “The Daily Telegraph article is defamatory. It is devoid of fact or logic. Referred to my lawyer.
“I will refer myself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.”
Less than half an hour later, the DUP tweeted a terse statement which said: “Ian Paisley MP will rightly refer himself to the Commissioner for Standards. We await the outcome of that investigation.”
Yesterday morning DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds had been due to appear on BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme.
But a senior BBC editor in Belfast said that Mr Dodds had pulled out at short notice after the story about Mr Paisley emerged the previous evening.
Then later yesterday morning Mr Paisley tweeted a press release from the libel lawyer Paul Tweed which said: “My client totally denies the defamatory inferences arising from the article in today’s Daily Telegraph including those relating to his registration obligations as an MP.
“He has now referred this matter, and a full explanation, to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.”
Although the newspaper did not explain how it had obtained details of Mr Paisley’s trips to Sri Lanka, it appears to have obtained documentation from the country with details of both emails which the MP is said to have sent to those organising the holidays and the itinerary while he and his wife were in the country.
The paper said that Mr Paisley had emailed an official in February 2013 to say that he “wanted to follow up on your kind offer of a visit for myself and my family” and proposing some dates for the trip.
The Daily Telegraph said that the first holiday took place in March of 2013 and was quickly followed by a second holiday three months later.
It said that Mr Paisley had taken his entire family on the first 10-day holiday and then returned with his wife, Fiona, and two of their children for the second trip.
The Daily Telegraph, long regarded as the in-house journal of the Conservative Party, said that its revelations would “raise serious questions about the influence and interests of the MP, who is one of 10 DUP members relied upon by Theresa May to ensure her government can continue”.
Mr Paisley’s fierce rival and critic, North Antrim MLA Jim Allister, yesterday said that The Daily Telegraph story raised “at the very least, serious questions about the judgement of Ian Paisley”.
The TUV leader, pictured right, said: “Accepting lavish holidays, offered because of one’s public position, from a foreign government is not a minor matter.
“The sheer scale of the foreign largesse will, I believe, surprise and cause disquiet to many in North Antrim and elsewhere.”
Mr Paisley was returned with an overwhelming 20,463 majority in June’s Westminster election, taking 59% of all votes cast in North Antrim and making it one of the safest seats in Northern Ireland.
Vocal backer of Sri Lankan authorities
Ian Paisley has been forthright in his defence of Sri Lanka, defending the Sri Lankan government in Parliament and elsewhere in recent years.
In November 2013, just four months after the date on which The Daily Telegraph reported that he had gone on his second holiday, Mr Paisley issued a statement defending the decision to hold the high profile Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka that year.
In the statement, Mr Paisley said it was “a huge honour to be chosen to attend this conference” and said that while “Sri Lanka sometimes gets a bad press” he was “delighted to have the opportunity to see the country at first hand”.
He claimed that an “anti-Sri Lanka campaign” was well underway and said that “some commentators are trying to smear those of us who are open to Sri Lanka in a similar way that Northern Ireland and unionism was smeared in the past by similar commentators”.
The North Antrim MP added: “I will not let that distract from my work in promoting trade relations.”
That same month, it emerged that the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, banned any of his MPs from accepting free holidays from the Sri Lankan government amid concern about the foreign government’s lobbying efforts with British MPs.
The Daily Telegraph reported at the time that the Sri Lankan High Commission in London had privately boasted that it had 14 UK MPs who were prepared to publicly defend the country’s government, and was hoping to fly several to the south Asian island that week.
Mr Cameron’s decision was reportedly taken on foot of advice from the Foreign Office.
Two trips to the Maldives
Last year Ian Paisley travelled to another beautiful holiday destination, the Maldives, with the trip funded by the islands’ government.
Mr Paisley was part of a delegation of MPs which travelled to the Maldives in February 2016.
The £5,000 bill for the trip was paid for by the controversial Maldives government. A report in The Independent last year questioned the MPs’ decision to make what it described as the “luxury trip” with business-class flights and nights at a luxury resort, during which they defended the Maldives government.
Mr Paisley told a press conference in the country: “If people are suggesting we are having our strings pulled by others, they don’t know very much about me or my colleagues.”
Mr Paisley had previously travelled to the Maldives for three days in May 2013 “to meet the president and vice president to discuss human rights” and other matters, with the £2,400 cost of the trip paid for by the Maldives government. Both trips were properly registered in the Commons.
Three years ago, Mr Paisley emerged as the UK’s most expensive MP, claiming £232,000 from taxpayers’ money for running his office, travel and accommodation. He said they were “unavoidable costs that an MP incurs whilst running a busy constituency office and commuting to Parliament” and that “none of this money goes to the MP”.