Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Ian Paisley's popularity with constituents is his greatest protection ... but will DUP take further action?

DUP MP Ian Paisley speaks at the NI Affairs Committee yesterday
DUP MP Ian Paisley speaks at the NI Affairs Committee yesterday
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Ian Paisley squandered whatever goodwill existed towards him in the DUP's upper echelons by his reaction to the petition of recall's failure last autumn.

The eating of humble pie for any length of time is not in his nature. But the party leadership was aghast at just how strongly the swagger and bravado returned.

Employing the biblical imagery beloved by his father was fine. Had the North Antrim MP kept it at 'Hallelujah' and declaring the result "a miracle", no harm would have been done.

Changing his Twitter account profile to boast "highest recorded vote in NI. 90.6% support from recall petition" was regarded as very bad taste. Presenting the vote as a big victory reeked of runaway egoism. He had learnt no lessons, some senior colleagues said.

Paisley shared an Ulster Fry cartoon of himself mocked up as Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.

And he spoke of himself in the third person. His constituents were saying "We are keeping you, big fella, we like you," he told the BBC.

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."

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That interview had senior DUP figures hiding under the covers with embarrassment. They told this reporter that Paisley's words could come back to haunt him. They said he had assured the party there were no more skeletons in the closet, and if it was proven otherwise there would be zero tolerance.

The last thing Arlene Foster wanted to be doing as she sat at a Policy Exchange panel at Westminster yesterday was to be answering questions about her North Antrim MP's luxury foreign holidays.

And yet the DUP is proceeding with extreme caution. The party is waiting to see what, if any, action the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone, takes. Parliamentary rules prevent her confirming or denying if she has already launched an investigation. If she has, the outcome could be some time away.

It was 10 months before the report from the last investigation into Paisley's Sri Lankan holidays went before MPs.

It is the House of Commons which decides on disciplinary action if wrong-doing is established. Mr Paisley made history as the first MP to have faced a recall petition. He does not want to make another record as the first MP to have faced one twice. He could not be contacted for comment yesterday on the Spotlight allegations.

The DUP's political opponents are understandably urging the party to take action regardless of what Ms Stone does. But the DUP is unlikely to be proactive and will instead wait to see what unfolds in London.

DUP sources say that after Brexit and Stormont's suspension, Paisley's luxury holidays was the issue most raised by unionist voters on the doorsteps in last month's elections.

It is not any love for the North Antrim MP, or indeed loyalty to his father's memory, which is saving him in the DUP. His popularity with his constituents is his greatest protection.

Were he to run as an independent in any future general election or by-election, he well could retain the seat. It gets even messier for the DUP in that any candidate it selected, such as Mervyn Storey or Paul Frew, would also likely face a strong challenge from TUV leader Jim Allister.

The DUP's internal disciplinary action against Paisley last year seemed tokenistic. If this week's Spotlight allegations stand up, and wrongdoing is proven, the party will be under immense pressure to take significant action this time.

With the RHI inquiry report due out in the autumn, the latest allegations against the North Antrim MP are the last thing the party needs. This is not just about form-filling and making declarations either.

The party knows from past experience in east Belfast that the image of its politicians enjoying a lifestyle far beyond that of those they represent can be very damaging politically.

Ian Paisley, like his father, has so far proven to be skilled at surviving. In politics, he throws away the rulebook and does it his way.

It remains to be seen whether or not his luck is finally running out.

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