Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: If rivals serious about unseating DUP's man, unity candidate wrong way to do it

By Suzanne Breen

The SDLP's proposal that an anti-Brexit candidate stand against Ian Paisley in a by-election is one of the most foolish ideas that could be put on the table.

If the party is serious about unseating the DUP MP, this is totally the wrong way to go about it.

North Antrim is not a pro-Remain constituency. It voted to leave the EU by a significant majority - 65%.

More importantly, as TUV leader Jim Allister noted, any anti-Brexit unity candidate plays right into the hands of the sitting MP.

"It's probably the best news Ian Paisley has heard in what must be a very dark week for him," Mr Allister said.

"He would love to turn this election (if there is one) away from what it's about, namely sleaze, to Brexit in a constituency that's overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit.

"It's a gift to Ian Paisley if this election is diverted from sleaze to Brexit."

A unity pro-Remain candidate would rally the unionist troops behind the DUP man in much the same way a unity anti-Sinn Fein candidate would have done in May's West Tyrone by-election.

Mr Paisley has a massive majority. He was returned with a whopping 59% of the poll in the last Westminster election. His 28,500 votes gave him a majority of more than 20,000 over the Sinn Fein runner-up.

Loyalty to the Paisley brand runs deep in North Antrim. Still, he surely has been damaged by his failure to declare two luxury holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government. The big question is, by how much?

Amnesty International has said the focus shouldn't be on Mr Paisley's failure to fill in the paperwork about his holidays.

It's what he was doing hob-nobbing with the Sri Lankan regime in the first place, and why he was attempting to have the British government oppose a UN investigation into the horrific war crimes committed on the island.

In reality, such global concerns are unlikely to fire up North Antrim voters.

But some will be angered that their MP is on holidays valued at up to £100,000 while they struggle to make ends meet.

One former Protestant worker at the JTI Gallaher tobacco factory remarked that just one of Mr Paisley's holidays was worth more than his entire redundancy payment.

Such voters will either switch to another unionist candidate or stay at home.

Mr Allister seems a cert to run in any by-election.

It would be an opportunity for him to take on the DUP MP at his weakest.

The odds overwhelmingly still favour Mr Paisley.

The TUV's best result in recent years is securing 18% vote with the DUP's worst 41% .

So, even allowing for some drift from the outgoing MP, Mr Allister would still have a mountain to climb.

Yet it would be a fascinating contest and one the TUV leader would undoubtedly relish.

Expect Mr Paisley to do his utmost to re-invent himself over the summer and put the Sri Lankan holidays scandal behind him.

But if anything further emerges about him in the media, we will be in uncharted territory.

Belfast Telegraph

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