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Editor's Viewpoint: Paisley's behaviour creates problem for DUP and Prime Minister May

People in public life, including politicians, often complain of trial by media. Ian Paisley MP cannot raise that argument as he was tried, in a manner of speaking, by his own peers over two visits to Sri Lanka, funded by that country's government, which he failed to declare.

True, the matter was first raised by The Daily Telegraph in September last year, but that has been shown to be in the public interest.

Mr Paisley faces a 30-day suspension from the House of Commons - and would be only the third MP to receive such a lengthy sanction since 1949 - and the matter could eventually result in him being forced to stand down in his North Antrim constituency.

His failure to declare the two visits by him and family members, which he estimates cost the Sri Lankan government more than £50,000 and which The Daily Telegraph claimed was worth £100,000, is an embarrassment to the DUP. Since agreeing its 'confidence and supply' deal with the Tory Government to keep Theresa May in power, it was inevitable that the DUP would come under increased scrutiny on the national stage.

But embarrassment is only part of the problem. Mr Paisley's absence from Parliament - if the recommendation from the House of Commons Standards Committee is accepted by MPs - reduces Mrs May's already tenuous majority, and she faces a number of important Brexit votes in the coming months. If approved, his suspension would begin on September 4.

Given the strength of the comments from other local parties, there may well be moves to create a by-election in North Antrim through a recall petition. Mr Paisley would lose his seat if 10% of the eligible electorate signs the petition, but he would be free to stand in any by-election. While the DUP says it will consider the report on Mr Paisley, it seems inconceivable that it would move to expel him or force him to give up his seat. The Paisley name has considerable cachet in North Antrim - it was his father who formed the DUP - and Mr Paisley undoubtedly has a considerable following in his constituency, aided by his affability and work ethic.

There is little history of politicians falling on their swords in Northern Ireland if found guilty of misconduct or offences such as those levelled at Mr Paisley. Indeed, he might have faced greater sanction from his party if he spoke out of turn to the media - the DUP imposes fines on those who do so - than for failing to declare the trips in the MPs' register of financial interests.

Cynics might argue that the public in Northern Ireland does not put integrity at the top of its tick list when deciding on who to vote for.

However, it should be remembered that Mr Paisley referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and apologised profusely for his failure to register the hospitality.

But it is also clear that he lobbied the then Prime Minister David Cameron to oppose a United Nations resolution setting up an international investigation into alleged human rights violations in Sri Lanka and did not mention his paid-for family visits to that country in his letter.

The scale of the hospitality he received was regarded by the Commissioner as another aggravating factor.

Mr Paisley's behaviour left him with little or no defence when the matter became public and the investigation by the Commissioner began.

Given the charged atmosphere at Westminster over Brexit, he now finds himself in an unwelcome spotlight.

Belfast Telegraph

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