Belfast Telegraph

Paisley petition of recall: Sinn Fein's O'Neill says DUP endorsing 'gross lack of integrity'

By Suzanne Breen

Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill has accused the DUP of endorsing "a gross lack of integrity in public office" after it lifted Ian Paisley's suspension from the party.

She was speaking yesterday after the DUP announced it had concluded its internal investigation into the North Antrim MP and had readmitted him into the party.

"After six weeks of silence the DUP announced today that its investigation into Ian Paisley had concluded and his suspension from the DUP had been lifted," she said.

"No further details have been provided, despite the very serious nature of the scandal that Ian Paisley has been engulfed in over his links to the Sri Lankan regime."

Ms O'Neill said Mr Paisley had lobbied to prevent the UN investigating war crimes against the Tamil people by the Sri Lankan regime. "He displayed a gross lack of integrity in public office through these actions. Despite this, there was no hint of an apology from the DUP to either the people of North Antrim or the Tamil population," she said.

"Instead, he has been welcomed back into the DUP fold. That represents another failure on behalf of the DUP and is an effective endorsement of his actions.

"The DUP is very fond of pontificating to others, but when it came to dealing with its own wrongdoing it failed to take the appropriate action, which would have been to sack Ian Paisley."

A petition of recall, which would have unseated Mr Paisley as North Antrim MP, failed to secure the necessary 10% support among the electorate.

Sinn Fein North Antrim MLA Philip McGuigan said the result shouldn't be read as an endorsement of Mr Paisley's actions, but "rather as an indictment on the Electoral Office who did not do enough to facilitate the people of North Antrim who wished to sign the petition".

He continued: "They had the option of opening as many as ten locations where people could sign the petition, yet they inexplicably opted to go for just three, in Ballymena, Ballymoney and Ballycastle.

"A number of parties - not just Sinn Fein - expressed concerns that many people did not feel comfortable attending some of these locations because it would be obvious that the only reason they were there was to sign the petition.

"The lack of an effective public awareness campaign and the restrictive opening hours of the signing centres were also major factors."

The Electoral Office has defended the arrangements it made and pointed out that postal votes were available. TUV leader Jim Allister said he accepted the petition's outcome. "Whereas points can be made about the lack of signing centres - only three compared to 51 polling stations in an election - the result is the result," he said. "My hope is that Ian Paisley will learn from this experience and in consequence be more circumspect in his behaviour. My fear is that he will be emboldened to think he can get away with anything. Indeed, boasting already on his social media profile of beating the petition is not a good sign."

Mr Allister said the "real losers" were the North Antrim electorate, who would be "without a voice and a vote" in any knife-edge Brexit votes in coming weeks in Westminster due to Mr Paisley's parliamentary suspension, which runs until November.

UUP leader Robin Swann said he respected the outcome and there had been "no appetite for a by-election" in the constituency. He cautioned Mr Paisley "not to see this as some sort of victory or endorsement of his actions in acting as a paid advocate for a foreign government and bringing North Antrim and the House of Commons into disrepute".

He continued: "Rather, I would urge him to use the time that he has been suspended from Parliament and the DUP, to reflect on the severity of what he has done and the embarrassment he has brought on Northern Ireland.

"He should demonstrate some humility. He`s the first Member of Parliament to be suspended from Westminster under the new rules, which is nothing to be proud of, and he has received the longest suspension since 1949.

"Trust in politics is at an all-time low and Mr Paisley`s actions and that of his party have played a major role in that."

SDLP chief whip Colin McGrath expressed his party's disappointment that the petition failed. He said the DUP should have removed Mr Paisley from the party. "Arlene Foster and the DUP leadership now have a duty to the public to act upon the official investigation that found Ian Paisley Jr had accepted lavish gifts from the Sri Lankan Government, which he failed to declare and in turn lobbied on their behalf," he said.

"Given the heat around the ongoing RHI investigation, it was imperative for Mrs Foster to help restore public confidence in politics by acting swiftly to remove Mr Paisley from the party. The conduct of political representatives must always be above reproach, and anything short of that is simply unacceptable."

Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong said Mr Paisley shouldn't be "celebrating a victory" after retaining his seat.

"In any other part of the UK, Ian Paisley would have had to resign in disgrace," she said.

"But the fact he was allowed to get away with his actions relatively scot-free shows many people here are still too focused on the divisions in our community at the expense of everything else."

Ms Armstrong continued: "This is not a victory for Ian Paisley. Talking about his 'endorsement' from the electorate shows he may not have learned anything, but the fact is he remains an MP - a disgraced one. He has nothing to be proud of and should show some humility from this entire sorry episode."

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