Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: Odds heavily stacked in Ian Paisley's favour whatever way you look at it

By Alex Kane

At first glance the sight of quite a few people heading into the three venues across north Antrim to sign a petition in favour of a recall by-election should unsettle Ian Paisley.

This, after all, isn't the sort of Orange/Green or Us/Them election we're used to in Northern Ireland. Indeed, this is the first election of its kind in the United Kingdom, so none of us can be overly confident in our predictions.

But the fact that Sinn Fein were first out of the traps, so to speak, and so free with the use of the word 'integrity' will probably do Paisley no harm. Even if he has let himself down in the eyes of many unionists, they will still rally to him if there is an election (which is, I think, likely) and it looks like it is being orchestrated by Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein cannot win this under their own banner; and nor can it be won by a candidate who has their nod of approval.

So Paisley will have some concerns that both Jim Allister and Robin Swann will be signing the petition. In a statement last week Swann said: "The UUP... would encourage any North Antrim electors who think that what Ian Paisley did was wrong to sign the petition and allow the entire North Antrim electorate to have their say."

Again, it's unlikely that a TUV/UUP endorsed candidate would beat Paisley, particularly if that candidate were also endorsed by SF/SDLP. But if that means two or three other candidates in the field he'd probably be happy enough.

It looks as though the DUP Constituency Association is behind him: that said, a lot of people, including key figures in the leadership, will be looking at the level of support he attracts at a pro-Paisley event being organised for him next Monday.

Any indication of a major split in the association, or a low turnout on the night, may embolden the leadership - who suspended him two weeks ago - to push for de-selection. The calculation they have to make - and they'll be doing their own soundings - is whether Brand DUP could win the seat from Brand Paisley.

The problem, of course, is that de-selection would tear the association apart and it would take a strong profile to challenge Paisley on his own turf; as well as risking a civil war across the entire party.

As it stands - although there are six weeks to go - the odds seem heavily stacked in Paisley's favour. A mixed field helps him. Any hint of Sinn Fein/SDLP supporting a candidate helps him. The fear of a split in the DUP helps him. The Paisley name and influence of his mother helps him. The near impossibility of finding a single candidate who could be endorsed by very big hitters and who could also attract the thousands of votes required helps him. The fact that most people seem to think he'll win no matter what happens also helps him.

North Antrim has been held by a Paisley since June 18, 1970. It would take an earthquake off the Richter Scale to unseat him. It's not impossible, but at this point it seems very unlikely.

Sinn Fein is aware of this: but a by-election keeps a very hot, very embarrassing light on Paisley and the DUP for the next three months.

That's probably enough for Sinn Fein at this point.

Belfast Telegraph

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