Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: It's depressing for Sinn Fein, but Paisley's unionist rivals missed out by failing to engage electorate in petition of recall

By Suzanne Breen

The eating of humble pie ended with the petition of recall defeat. Ian Paisley was soon back to his bold, brash self after the result which meant he wouldn't have to face a by-election.

His Twitter account profile was swiftly changed: "Freeman, City of London. M.P. for North Antrim DUP 2010-15, 15-17 & 17- present returned with highest recorded vote in NI. 90.6% support from recall petition."

He told the BBC that those 90.6% cent were saying, "We are keeping you, big fella, we like you". He added: "I can't help the reasons why I am in the news....I could be a shrinking violet...I am not prepared to do that."

In the eyes of his political critics, Mr Paisley will be insufferable now. To his supporters, there is every reason for the bravado and it's why they love him.

Despite the outrage across the political divide and the wall-to-wall media coverage, only 9.4% of the North Antrim electorate were bothered enough to go out and sign the petition to unseat Mr Paisley. It is an exaggeration to say that everyone who stayed at home supports the MP. But he clearly remains immensely popular in the constituency regardless of what luxury foreign holidays he takes or the human rights abuse allegations facing the government paying for them.

The plain people of North Antrim like him and didn't care too much about what parliamentary rules he broke.

Mr Paisley was swiftly welcomed back to the bosom of the DUP with the party issuing a statement saying his suspension had been lifted. Only the naïve would believe such a move would have happened had the petition gone the other way.

Despite rumours that the party may have selected MLA Paul Frew, DUP sources insist Mr Paisley would still have been the party's candidate in a by-election but penalties would have been imposed on him before he returned to the fold.

Arlene Foster will breathe a huge sigh of relief that a North Antrim by-election has been avoided. It's the only good bit of news her party has received in recent months. The unionist electorate proved to be relatively nonplussed about the allegations against Mr Paisley.

The DUP may now hope that despite some initial displeasure, they will be equally switched off regarding the claims facing her party at the ongoing RHI Inquiry.

When the North Antrim MP was suspended by the House of Commons, some pontificated that he would be "chastened" by the experience and be easier for his party leadership to handle in future. The failure of the petition of concern makes that an unlikely prospect. Mr Paisley has effectively received a resounding endorsement from his voters and he won't be shy about letting the DUP upper echelons know that over time.

There has been criticism of the Electoral Office for opening only three polling stations for the petition of recall.

But the reality is that only Sinn Fein put any effort into campaigning against Mr Paisley.

The party's North Antrim MLA Philip McGuigan worked tirelessly during the six weeks but the other parties registered to campaign didn't match his efforts.

Although their leaders personally signed the petition, the TUV and the UUP didn't register and just sat back and watched. If they wanted it to succeed, they needed to get out and knock doors.

The parties may have believed that Sinn Fein would successfully do the heavy lifting on this one.

They clearly feared they would be 'contaminated' in the eyes of their own electorate if they joined in. They have paid the price for that decision. Mr Paisley's position in the constituency has been greatly strengthened.

His unionist opponents have missed out on the chance of a by-election which would have been turned into a referendum on sleaze. The failure to topple the MP is very depressing news for Sinn Fein, but even more so for the DUP's unionist rivals.

Belfast Telegraph

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