Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein and UUP hit out at decision to open just three centres for Paisley recall

By Michael Sheils McNamee

MLAs from Sinn Fein and the UUP have hit out at the "limited" provision of centres for constituents to sign a petition to recall DUP MP Ian Paisley.

A petition in Mr Paisley's North Antrim constituency is taking place in the wake of a vote in the House of Commons last month to suspend the MP for 30 days after revelations he failed to declare two family holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government.

The petition has the potential to trigger a by-election if 10% of constituents sign the petition - which works out at 7,547.

There was the potential for as many as 10 petition centres to be opened.

The decision to open three has been criticised by Sinn Fein and the UUP.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann expressed his disappointment at the decision, saying the number of centres was "totally inadequate for a constituency the size of North Antrim", and that the opening hours of 9am to 5pm would make it difficult for many to sign recall petition.

“I suspect that this very limited provision, both in terms of locations and timings, will lead to a larger than usual request for postal votes, and whether rightly or wrongly, this may well lead to accusations of voter identity abuse," he said.

“The Ulster Unionist Party will not register as campaigner during the recall petition, but we would encourage any North Antrim electors who think what Ian Paisley did was wrong to sign the petition and allow the entire North Antrim electorate to have their say.

“As a North Antrim constituent I will be signing the petition as I believe the findings of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards are so serious and go to such an extent that the only option is for a by-election to be called."

The decision to open three centres has been defended by Chief Electoral Officer Virginia McVea.

She told the BBC: "I could have opened one venue or I could have opened 10.

"This runs for a lengthy period - six weeks and during that period I determined that it would be reasonable to expect people to be able to reach these three venues."

Sinn Fein North Antrim MLA Philip McGuigan called on the Electoral Commission to work to ensure the democratic process is "not subverted".

On the decision to open a limited number of centres and limit the opening hours, he said: "It greatly reduces people’s ability to reject the disgraceful behaviour of Ian Paisley in accepting lavish family holidays from the Sri Lankan government before lobbying against a UN investigation into war crimes and human rights abuses.

“North Antrim is a large constituency and Sinn Féin proposed that the recall petition should be available in as many as ten local government offices.

“I would urge the Electoral Commission to provide more centres and more flexible opening times to ensure that the democratic process is not subverted."

The recall petition will be open for six weeks between August 8 and September 19, from 9am to 5pm, with extended opening times from 9am until 9pm on September 6 and September 13.

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