Ian Paisley foreign trip furore: voters voice their views
The traditional DUP heartland of North Antrim has been closely linked to the name Paisley for almost half a century.
DUP founder Rev Ian Paisley had maintained an iron grip on the seat for four decades, before handing the reins over to his son Ian Paisley Jnr in 2010.
As demonstrated at last year’s general election, this dynastic dominance remains strong, with the DUP strolling home with 43.2% of the vote in the constituency – a result that surpassed even the most optimistic of projections.
So it was perhaps unsurprising that many people in the constituency have been keen to voice support for under-fire Ian Paisley in the fallout of the Sri Lanka holiday scandal.
The DUP MP declared himself “embarrassed” and aplogised to his constituents after it was revealed on Wednesday that the House of Commons’ Standards Committee found he had committed “serious misconduct” in relation to his failure to declare two lavish family holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government.
He now faces a 30-day ban from Parliament.
He also faces the prospect of losing his seat if a sufficient proportion of the North Antrim electorate decide to sign a public petition calling for a by-election.
In a bid to gauge the mood of voters, the News Letter yesterday took to the streets of Ballymoney, one of the constituency’s two main towns.
The overall feeling on the ground was summed up by the first person we spoke to, who proclaimed: “It was a genuine mistake on his part and he has held his hands up. It will not stop me voting for him in the future.”
This was a view shared by many in the town, with some brushing the controversy off as being “blown out of proportion”, and feeling confident Mr Paisley would suffer no long-term political damage.
There were others who felt the DUP veteran should fall on his sword and resign for his indiscretions.
However, the overriding consensus was that, even in the event of a snap by-election, there was little to no danger of Mr Paisley losing his iron-clad grip on the seat.
An significantly, not a single one of the DUP voters we spoke to said they were considering withdrawing their support for Mr Paisley over the matter.
Derek Murphy (55) described the scandal as “a storm in a teacup”.
He added: “I think it was an oversight on his behalf. The punishment in my mind is far too severe. He should be given a slap on the wrists and learn from his mistakes.
“It is an important time for the British Government with the Brexit negotiations and Theresa May needs all the votes she can get. They should go easier on him.
“He has done a lot of good work for this area, just like his father did. It is not going to make me change my mind about voting for him.
“I think, if anything, this will make more people want to vote for him, to back him up and show him support.”
Irene Camac also said she would not be deterred from voting for Mr Paisley, adding: “Everybody makes mistakes. He is a good politician and has done a good job for this area. He has said sorry and seems genuine about it.”
Nevin Scott (77) felt the North Antrim MP had made “an honest mistake and was paying for it”.
He continued: “I don’t believe he set out to do this, he just made a mistake, as any of us can.
“Everybody deserves a second chance.”
Eileen McNeill (80) said Mr Paisley’s apology in the House of Commons on Thursday was “sincere”.
She added: “I am not from North Antrim but I do vote DUP. I will still vote for them again after this. I feel sad for Ian and I hope things go OK for him in future.”
Jean McKeeman said: “As far as I am concerned he did wrong but has held his hands up and apologised. I have always voted DUP and this will not change my mind.”
Mark Hunter (47) urged people to “draw a line under the situation and move on”.
“This shouldn’t put people off voting for Ian Paisley, because he is no different than any other politician. Many of them have done a lot worse, the only difference is that he was caught out,” he added.
But Jason Dunlop (45) rejected the assertion that Mr Paisley had made a “genuine mistake”, adding: “I think he is just sorry he has been caught.”
Despite Mr Paisley’s serious breach of parliamentary rules, Mr Dunlop felt the MP’s behaviour would have little bearing on any future election results in North Antrim.
While many were happy to voice their continued support for the DUP man, others did not want to put their name to their opinions.
One shopper called on Mr Paisley to resign, stating: “Someone with his level of experience is not going to make a mistake like that. He is too smart to not have known that what he was doing was wrong.
“People will definitely have a lower opinion of him after this, but I ultimately don’t think it will make any difference. It is ingrained in people here to vote for Paisley.”
An Ulster Unionist voter said: “I don’t think this will change many people’s minds when it comes to voting, because of his name in this area. People will be disappointed in him but it will not stop them voting DUP.”
In his statement to the Commons on Thursday morning, Mr Paisley 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.
He also addressed the people of North Antrim, stating: “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.”
The recommendation to suspend Mr Paisley will now go before the House of Commons on Tuesday for approval, in the form of a motion.
If the motion is passed, Mr Paisley’s suspension from the Commons will begin on September 4 and will last for 30 sitting days – meaning he would be unable to return to his duties until mid-November.
Mr Paisley will lose his salary during that period – a punishment in the region of £15,000.
Due to the severity of Mr Paisley’s offence, once the suspension has been formally confirmed, Commons Speaker John Bercow must write to Northern Ireland’s chief electoral officer, who must then organise a public petition to allow North Antrim voters to decide whether to force a by-election.
If 10% of the electorate – in North Antrim that would currently be 7,737 people – sign the petition, then Mr Paisley will lose his seat, although he would be free to stand in the by-election.
On Thursday, DUP leader Arlene Foster gave little hint of the party’s view of the severity of what he has done.
Mrs Foster reiterated what the party had said the previous day, saying that his actions would be considered by the party officers.