Upper Bann MP David Simpson ought to resign and force a by-election, Mike Nesbitt has said after a watchdog ruled that the publication of a pre-election poll claiming that Sinn Fein could take the seat was misleading.
Mr Nesbitt made the call after the Independent Press Standards Office (IPSO) upheld his complaint about the poll, which was published in the Portadown Times just days before May’s election.
But the DUP dismissed Mr Nesbitt’s call for a by-election and accused him of being “a leader unable to accept the verdict of the electorate”.
The DUP had paid for the poll by an unnamed company but the newspaper article — which was accompanied by a graph showing Mr Simpson and Sinn Fein’s Catherine Seeley neck-on-neck — did not say that the DUP had funded what it described as an “independent poll” to which it had been given “exclusive access”.
The article did not state that the poll had been conducted six weeks earlier and included quotes from Mr Simpson, who said that “this poll clearly demonstrates that this election is a contest between me and the Sinn Fein candidate” and warned that “a vote for any other unionist risks allowing Sinn Fein to win”.
However, in the election Sinn Fein did not perform as the poll suggested. In fact, Mr Simpson came first with 32.7 per cent of the vote, the UUP’s Jo-Anne Dobson came second with 27.9 per cent and Sinn Fein trailed in third with 24.6 per cent.
The paper argued to IPSO that “it was entitled to be partisan” and said that “it was a condition of publication that the article not include the name of the polling company”.
IPSO ruled that the newspaper had “verified the methodology used to carry out the poll and regarded it to be independent on that basis”. But it added: “Nonetheless, readers were entitled to receive accurate information about the source of the poll” and said it was “misleading” the describe the poll as “independent”.
Mr Nesbitt claimed that the poll had led to “a dramatic mood swing on the doorstep”. He said: “Where voters had previously been bright and enthusiastic about the prospect of Jo-Anne as their MP, the poll resulted in people indicating they could not risk voting Ulster Unionist out of fear.”
He added: “Given the way the publication of an out-of-date survey appears to have skewed the result... I have no doubt David Simpson MP will do the decent thing and call a by-election so the people of Upper Bann can vote without the artificial shadow of fear hanging over their ballot papers.”
Upper Bann DUP MLA Sydney Anderson responded: “Every candidate is entitled to disappointment following an election defeat. What we are witnessing from the Ulster Unionist Party however is sour grapes on an industrial scale. It’s time to stop blaming the people and accept the result.”