Belfast Telegraph

Paisley petition of recall: Jon Tonge: Prospect of by-election hardly enhanced by the petition’s interesting rules and preposterous levels of secrecy

By Jon Tonge

Short of tweeting pictures from a Sri Lankan beach, Ian Paisley Jnr could hardly have been more bullish yesterday.

The North Antrim MP basked in the apathetic adulation of 90.6% of his constituents, who heroically failed to show up at council offices to unseat him.

Never has doing nothing received such praise. Paisley's recovery from a near-death political experience counts as one of the more remarkable escapes from danger. Houdini looked on enviously as North Antrim became the by-election that never was.

And to cap a fine couple of days, the DUP lifted Paisley's suspension from the party. Just fancy that. Alas, we'll never know whether the DUP found anything in the party's exhaustive inquiries beyond the House of Commons Committee on Standards' 98-paragraph report.

Not that the DUP had any choice but to back Paisley, of course. If the good citizens of North Antrim did not want rid, the DUP could hardly say goodbye. Paisley is forbidden from holding office within the DUP for a year.

Amid the bad jokes and recriminations, what are the implications for Paisley and the DUP? For Paisley, it's a case of still feeling the love.

He enjoys genuine popularity within his constituency, the affection towards the brand name showing no sign of waning. Since Paisley Snr captured the seat in 1970, the Paisley majority has never been less than five figures. Jnr's 20,643 majority in 2017 was the largest yet of the three occasions he has fought the seat. Whatever the level of opprobrium elsewhere towards his Sri Lankan ventures, Paisley is viewed as a good, hardworking constituency MP who cares deeply about the people he represents.

A by-election would only have got interesting had there been a three-way split in the unionist vote between Paisley the Independent, a new DUP candidate and the TUV's Jim Allister; 35,000 unionist votes split three ways. Paisley would have been favourite, but not an absolute certainty.

Some nationalists wanted to run a unity 'anti-Brexit' candidate, hoping that the 13,000 non-unionist votes in 2017 could combine to win - but that would have needed a neat three-way split in the unionist vote.

All academic now of course. Prospects for a by-election were hardly enhanced by interesting - other adjectives are available - petition rules. Nationalists must have relished the thought of an afternoon out in Ballymena, heading to the council office, asking publicly 'Where do I go to unseat the second most popular man ever to draw breath in this constituency?' and then having to wander along corridors past quizzical eyes - 'We know why you're here' - to reach the room to sign the petition. Top day out, eh?

The irony is that the very public and awkward petition signing was accompanied by preposterous wartime levels of secrecy regarding how the process was proceeding, under threat of legal action: "Don't mention the petition", "Put that opinion poll out", "Careless talk costs parliamentary lives", etc.

This is not to denigrate the poor council and election officials saddled with a difficult, one-off task and hidebound by a restrictive legal framework, but the conduct of the exercise ought to invite reflection.

Paisley's triumph of the unwilling was not due merely to procedural oddities, though. The bigger political message to be inculcated - yet again - is that political parties in Northern Ireland are largely impervious to the damage that would be wreaked upon them in a more normal political system by their antics.

The former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mike Nesbitt, declared the 2017 Assembly election a "referendum on RHI". Rightly outraged by the scandal but wrong in his electoral calculations, Nesbitt came up against a DUP whose share of the unionist vote remained unchanged by RHI. In other words, Arlene Foster's party was undamaged electorally by its alleged conduct. The same may yet hold true whatever the ultimate RHI verdict.

The idea that Paisley's support for the Sri Lankan government would disturb DUP loyalties in North Antrim was always far-fetched. The MP is normally on the side of those in the north-east corner of an island resisting being absorbed into a unitary state, but clearly the Sri Lanka versus Tamil case was different for him.

In the grim whataboutery that passes for daily political life, the last time I was in the constituency (in Harryville) one local resident argued to me that "if plenty of nationalists could support Sinn Fein when they were pro-IRA, why should I stop my support for Paisley because of a couple of free holidays?"

Successive Northern Ireland election studies have shown that most people that vote continue to do so on constitutional issues and not on other matters - be they RHI, social or moral issues, or Sri Lankan holidays. Non-constitutional issues may matter hugely and generate lots of noise and passion but those most exercised by them are the least likely to vote.

So, it's as you were politically. Come on - even the Secretary of State knows this by now...

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

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