Belfast Telegraph

Under-fire Paisley receives support in Ballymena after it emerges he billed charity £6k for first class trip to New York

By Mark Bain

It was business as usual for Ian Paisley yesterday as he attended a special event at The Braid Centre in Ballymena to hand the Freedom of the Borough to Sir William Wright.

The under-fire MP for North Antrim sat quietly in the audience as the honour was bestowed on the 94-year-old businessman, boss of Wrightbus, for his services to the economy and community.

Not once was the latest allegation, surrounding a £6,000 expenses bill to Co-operation Ireland for a trip to New York last year, mentioned.

Mr Paisley himself brushed off questions with "no comment" when approached, preferring instead to focus on the matter in hand - the celebration of a local success story.

He was among friends who backed him after his suspension from the House of Commons for 30 sitting days last year for not declaring two family holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government in 2013, estimated to be worth around £50,000.

They backed him again in December when it emerged that the DUP MP was given a complimentary family holiday to the Maldives in 2016, which he also failed to declare.

His speech to the assembled dignitaries of the borough was akin to a man talking to an audience of friends. Preaching to the converted, not a murmur of a scandal.

He talked about family, about what the Wright family have done for Ballymena, the jobs they have brought to the area, the support the family have given to community projects, about the "obvious love" the workers at Wrightbus had for the man who employed them.

"They have put their faith in the people of Ballymena and the surrounding district and the people have not let them down," he said. He could easily have been talking about the Paisley family.

And as the MP remained to enjoy the complimentary lunch at the Braid Centre, it was clear that on the streets of his home town the wagons were already circling in defence of 'their man'.

David Gregg told the Belfast Telegraph: "I have known the Paisleys a long time and they're like family to many in north Antrim. That's why we will support him.

"Many would like to see the back of him, probably even from within his own party. They pushed his father out and he has the Paisley name so will always be a big target. This doesn't change anything. We're Ballymena people and Ian is our man."

And he pointed the finger at other politicians who, he says, have offended him much more.

He said: "I've watched Sinn Fein bring Barry McElduff back into politics after his actions with a loaf of Kingsmill on his head. To me, that is so much more hurtful."

Marcus Gregg (57) was also adamant that support for his MP will never change.

"I will always vote for the big man and that's that," he said.

"The Paisleys have done wonderful things for this area. That's what matters to me."

Heather McCrystal (56) added: "He's human like the rest of us. Would there be a story on the front pages if it was any other politician?

"He may not be his father, but times have changed. We've moved on and accept that Ian Paisley senior was a unique person.

"But we have to encourage Ian junior to continue to work for this town and the area.

"No-one is perfect and in Northern Ireland we can be very quick to judge people, but look at his record of good work done for this community."

William Reid (73) said: "I've lived in Scotland and England before and never had an MP as close to the people of his community as Ian Paisley.

"The majority of Ballymena people will always stand by him."

Mr Paisley has been MP since May 2010, taking the seat held by his late father, Lord Bannside, and had a 20,000-plus majority at the last election.

And it seems that no matter what others may throw in Ian Paisley's direction, he remains as popular as ever with many in his North Antrim heartland.

Belfast Telegraph

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