Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Ian Paisley an unconventional politician unlikely to be ousted from North Antrim

By Suzanne Breen

As a child, Ian Paisley was always in trouble. His late father once recalled his son's "particularly mischievous" nature.

Putting mice in teachers' desks and waiting for the screams. Sticking his twin Kyle's head down the toilet. And even once daring to dangle a cigarette from his lips as his father preached fire and brimstone from the pulpit of his Martyrs' Memorial Free Presbyterian Church.

Ian jnr recalled getting "a kick in the backside" for that.

He is currently facing punishment of a much more serious nature from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

All eyes will be on the erring DUP MP when he addresses Parliament today. Suspensions of any length from the House of Commons are rare - often years pass without one.

If confirmed by the House, Mr Paisley's 30-day suspension for failing to register two family holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government will become the longest suspension by far for any MP in almost 70 years. That's one record the DUP won't be proud to have broken.

The party's role in propping up Theresa May's minority Tory government means the suspension is major national news.

Its effect on parliamentary arithmetic, with knife-edge key Brexit votes, further raises the stakes and focuses even more attention on the North Antrim MP. The cards couldn't have fallen worse for the DUP on this one.

The party was yesterday adopting a business as usual approach, firing out Press releases on Brexit and folic acid.

On Mr Paisley, there was only a brief two-line statement, noting the commissioner's report and saying "the matter will now be considered by party officers".

But it is difficult to imagine the DUP giving its MP anything other than a slap on the wrists.

It really can't afford to do otherwise.

There was increasing speculation last night that a recall petition - which means an MP can lose their seat if 10% of the electorate in their constituency sign the petition - would be successful. That would lead to a by-election which Mr Paisley would surely contest as an independent if the DUP didn't select him.

"North Antrim is more Paisley country than DUP country," noted one unionist.

"It has had a Paisley as MP for almost half a century and it's not likely to change its mind because of a holiday in Sri Lanka.

"If Junior ran as an independent, he would beat any candidate the DUP put up. Loyalty to the Paisley family runs deep in this constituency. The party leadership knows that and no matter how much they may be tempted to cut Junior loose, they won't risk doing so."

Withdrawing the whip from Mr Paisley for a limited period may be the most likely punishment the party opts for.

The North Antrim MP has long enjoyed a freedom in the party due to his family connection that other DUP representatives can only dream of. This latest episode may change the balance of power at least slightly and allow the leadership to clip Mr Paisley's wings to some extent in future.

The 51-year-old has four children with wife Fiona, a paediatric nurse. He was himself the youngest of five children. His father wanted him to be a minister like Kyle but his heart was set on politics. He studied history and politics at Queens University where he made a very public protest at the banning of God Save The Queen at graduation ceremonies.

He entered politics, working for his father, and made a name for himself campaigning to free the UDR Four. He was elected to the Assembly in 1998 and won his father's Westminster seat in 2010. Throughout his career, he has never been far from the headlines and has raised the hackles of the DUP's upper echelons on numerous occasions.

From posing on a motorbike with Miss North West 200 Jillian Frew, to selfies with Melania Trump and belting out Sweet Caroline at the annual karaoke event at the Tory conference, he has never been afraid to let his hair down.

Mr Paisley is remarkably well-connected. His relationship with the Trump family is a prime example of the alliances he has built.

He emerged as the MP with the highest expenses in 2012-13. He resigned as a junior Stormont minister in 2008 following criticism of his links to property developer Seymour Sweeney and allegations he had lobbied on his behalf.

The controversy didn't curb Mr Paisley's popularity in North Antrim. While the DUP's political opponents call for him to resign, those who know him laugh at the very idea he would even consider doing so.

But this episode is another blow to the DUP's reputation in the wake of Nama, Red Sky, and cash-for-ash. With Arlene Foster back before the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry in the autumn, a by-election with Mr Paisley's luxury holiday being dissected is something the party could definitely do without.

When once asked if he resented walking in his father's shadow, he replied: "There will only ever be one Ian Paisley snr, but equally there will also only ever be one Ian Paisley jnr. He intends to make his own mark."

Nobody could dispute that he has certainly done that.

Belfast Telegraph

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