Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Ian Paisley might think he can't be beaten, but Jim Allister may well have other ideas

How ironic would it be if by-election returned pro-Brexit TUV leader to Westminster?

By Alban Maginness

The DUP have a massive problem with managing the fallout from Ian Paisley MP's exclusion from the House of Commons for 30 sitting days. This heavy sanction - unprecedented in modern times - reflected the gravity with which the Standards Committee and the House of Commons unanimously viewed his non-declaration of two luxury holidays, paid for by a foreign government, namely Sri Lanka.

The monetary value of these holidays was not determined, but was at least £50,000 and maybe as high as £100,000.

In accepting such dubious hospitality, Ian Paisley should surely have realised that this had to be disclosed to the House of Commons, fully and timely. But he did not.

The Sri Lankan government had a heavy shadow hanging over it, due to the extremely serious allegations levelled at it by international human rights bodies and the United Nations over the manner in which its armed forces brought the long-running civil war in that country to an end.

Reputable international bodies have expressed deep concern at the way in which Sri Lanka's armed forces successfully, but ruthlessly, suppressed the remnants of the Tamil Tiger rebels, who had started a rebellion over 26 years previously.

In order to finally suppress the rebellion in 2009, it is alleged that the army attacked the rebels without any regard for the safety of the civilian population of men, women and children living and sheltering in the affected rebel-controlled areas.

Thousands of ordinary civilians were killed, or injured, and forced from their homes. The Sri Lankan army has been widely blamed for the carnage.

It was on behalf of this same Sri Lankan government that Ian Paisley lobbied the British Government to actively oppose a proposed United Nations resolution to hold an international investigation into the many allegations of human rights abuses.

It is hard to believe that any MP - let alone the DUP member for North Antrim - would oppose such a highly warranted and necessary international investigation.

Lobbying on behalf of the Sri Lankan government in such circumstances hardly inspires much confidence in Ian Paisley's concern for human rights for the victims of political violence in a post-conflict situation, such as we have here.

On foot of the House of Commons exclusion, the DUP have suspended Ian Paisley from membership of the party, "pending further investigation into his conduct".

This rather cryptic phraseology suggests that there might be even more matters to be addressed, over and above the Sri Lankan luxury holidays.

But although the DUP are deeply embarrassed by this affair, they also have two further major problems arising out of Paisley's serious breach of parliamentary rules and standards.

The first is that he cannot vote on crucial Brexit-related matters, probably right up to December, given the vagaries of the parliamentary timetable.

This means that the DUP support for Theresa May has been weakened down to nine members and, given the closeness of recent Brexit-related votes, could put some of her proposals in jeopardy. This is a significant embarrassment for the DUP leadership at such an important time.

But, worse still, under new rules, an MP found to have seriously contravened the rules of the House of Commons could be forced to give up his seat, as a result of a recall procedure enacted by 10% of the constituency's electorate.

There are clearly enough Sinn Fein, SDLP, TUV and UUP voters in North Antrim to achieve that recall with relative ease and bring about a by-election.

While it well might be that Ian Paisley is favourite to be elected in that by-election, there can be no certainty of that in these current circumstances.

Undoubtedly, Paisley has greatly benefited over the years from his father's legendary status.

However, Ian Paisley Snr had a reputation for open and plain living.

Many ordinary DUP voters will be aghast, disappointed and even angry at the self-indulgence of Ian Paisley and his family and in his secretly accepting such over-the-top hospitality from a dubious foreign government.

In North Antrim, Jim Allister MLA is an extraordinary and formidable political rival and might persuade that strongly pro-Brexit constituency to swap loyalties and send the militantly pro-Brexit advocate to Westminster.

The unionist electorate of North Antrim knows that only a unionist can be elected and they might want to teach Paisley and the increasingly scandal-ridden DUP a harsh lesson.

If Peter Robinson MP could, in 2010, lose his safe East Belfast seat, Jim Allister should not be ruled out of contention in North Antrim in 2018.

What a bitter irony if Ian Paisley's brashness and self-indulgence allows the ex-MEP and bitter rival Jim Allister to triumph at the polls and be catapulted into Brexit-dominated Westminster.

Belfast Telegraph

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