Belfast Telegraph

'Embarrassed' Ian Paisley faces longest suspension on record over £50,000 holiday - and could lose his seat

By Suzanne Breen

A Westminster by-election in North Antrim is increasingly likely as pressure mounts on Ian Paisley for failing to declare two luxury holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government.

Political sources predicted that the serious breach of parliamentary rules would lead to the triggering of a successful Recall Petition. If Sinn Fein throws its weight behind a petition, it is likely to gain the 7,500 signatures from the North Antrim electorate which would cause Mr Paisley to lose his seat and force a by-election. SDLP, Alliance and some non-DUP unionist voters are also likely to support the petition.

Several DUP figures last night expressed exasperation with Mr Paisley. They said that despite recognising "the power of the Paisley brand" in North Antrim, they were "increasingly fed up" with the MP.

Mr Paisley is due to make a statement in Parliament today following a highly critical report by the House of Commons Standards Committee.

It has recommended his suspension for 30 days - one of the longest periods any MP has faced in almost 70 years - which will deprive Theresa May of a crucial vote on key Brexit issues.

Mr Paisley is due to make a 'mea culpa' statement to the House, expressing deep regret for what has happened.

In a letter that Mr Paisley sent to the committee last week, the DUP MP stated: "I am deeply embarrassed by it and fully understand that it has an impact on my reputation.

"Members of the House are held to the highest standard and a failure, such as this, reflects on both the Member concerned and the wider house. I understand that fully, and know that I have let myself and colleagues down by not being properly attentive to the registration on these occasions in 2013. For this I apologise unreservedly."

Sir Alistair Graham, a former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said he was shocked by Mr Paisley's breach of parliamentary rules.

"I am genuinely surprised that a politician of his experience was silly enough not to declare that he had enjoyed these benefits from the Sri Lankan government," he said.

Sir Alistair described a 30-day suspension as a "serious punishment".

Asked if Mr Paisley should resign, he said the issue of him standing aside was one for his North Antrim constituents alone to decide through the Recall Petition mechanism.

In a statement, Mr Paisley's solicitor said his client had "apologised unreservedly at the outset for his unintentional failure to register the hospitality he received".

He accepted the decision of the House Standards Committee but took issue with the Daily Telegraph's initial report on his holidays.

The recommendation to suspend Mr Paisley will go before the Commons in the form of a motion which is expected to be moved by the Leader of the House.

A Recall Petition can be triggered by a suspension of more than 10 sitting days. It remains open for six weeks.

Mr Paisley is likely to be re-selected by the DUP and to win any by-election but even fighting such a campaign would prove embarrassing for the DUP.

It would be the first Recall Petition ever in the UK.

A formal process would be set in motion with the electoral authorities writing to the entire electorate in North Antrim. A designated location would be open to voters over a six-week period to have their say on Mr Paisley's future.

Politicians from across the political divide told the Belfast Telegraph they expected the process to result in a by-election.

Mr Paisley has already apologised for what he said was his "unintentional failure" to register the hospitality which he estimated was worth £50,000.

If rubber-stamped by Parliament, the suspension will also mean Prime Minister Theresa May will lose one of the 10 DUP MPs propping up her minority government during a period that could see a number of crucial Brexit votes in the Commons.

The sanction was outlined by the House of Commons Standards Committee following receipt of the findings of an investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

The committee said Mr Paisley had committed "serious misconduct" and his actions "were of a nature to bring the House of Commons into disrepute".

The report, which said the cost of the hospitality may have been "significantly more" than Mr Paisley's £50,000 estimate, said the Sri Lankan holidays in 2013 included business class air travel, accommodation at first-class hotels, helicopter trips and visits to tourist attractions for the North Antrim MP and his wider family. The trips also included meeting with Sri Lankan governmental figures.

The threshold for registering such hospitality in 2013 was around £660. In March 2014, Mr Paisley wrote to the then Prime Minister David Cameron to lobby against a proposed United Nations resolution setting up an international investigation into alleged human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. The committee noted that in his letter the MP did not declare the financial benefits he and his family had received from the Sri Lankan government during the previous 12 months.

The watchdog's findings read: "In view of the seriousness of this matter, we recommend that Mr Paisley be suspended from the service of the House for a period of 30 sitting days starting on September 4, 2018."

It was recommended that Mr Paisley should also now register the holidays with the parliamentary authorities.

In a short statement, a DUP spokesman said: "The party has noted the House of Commons Standards Committee's report on Ian Paisley MP. These matters will now be considered by the party officers."

Belfast Telegraph

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