Ian Paisley Junior: one scandal too many?

Will loyalty prevail over Paisley’s adventures and forgetfulness?

DUP MP Ian Paisley made an emotional apology to the House of Commons for failing to disclose two paid family holidays to Sri Lanka. Video: Parliamentlive.tv

 

Ian Paisley, who boasts that Donald Trump is a friend, has had a career littered with controversy. In 2008 he resigned as a junior minister in the Stormont Assembly over awkward dealings with a property dealer friend.

Then, he was simultaneously an MLA, a junior minister and a paid researcher for his father. There was a holiday home that Paisley said he had bought, but which remained under the name of the developer’s wife. It was an “administrative hiccup”, he explained.

More recently, he has brought Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove over for fundraisers in his constituency. The electoral commission is investigating the sponsoring of a table at one of these by the local council at a cost of £1,500 (€1,680).

The latest scandal, however, which has seen him face the most severe reprimand recommended by the House of Commons Standards and Privileges since 1947, is of a different magnitude.

During his apology in parliament Paisley implied that his God had already forgiven him: “Although you were angry with me your anger has turned away and you have comforted me.”

Comedian Jake O’Kane was one of many who took to their Bibles to find alternative quotes from the Book of Isiah, tweeting: “Your nakedness will be uncovered and your shame will be exposed . . .”

So far, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and British prime minister Theresa May have managed to fob off efforts to get them to comment on what should happen next – amid calls that a byelection in north Antrim is necessary.

Personal regret

Usually known as Junior, in deference to the larger reputation of his father, Paisley the Younger expressed “profound personal regret and deep personal embarrassment” for not declaring a series of luxury trips for himself and family members to Sri Lanka in 2013.

“It is often said that it is how we respond to these challenges in our lives that defines who and what we are,” he said.

Exposed firstly by the Daily Telegraph, Paisley – after he had threatened to sue the newspaper – tried to blame members of his office staff in his opening communications with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

He had, he declared, given instructions to them to register the payments-in-kind made to him by the Sri Lankan government – luxury hotels, flights, helicopter trips – saying he did not know why they had not done so.

Commissioner Kathryn Stone, who previously served as victims commissioner in Northern Ireland, dismissed this excuse, noting in passing that the account he had given of his staffing arrangements was incorrect. In any event, Stone, who developed a reputation for straight-speaking during her time in Belfast between 2012 and 2014, said that, as a member of parliament, Paisley should have been aware that the onus of accountability was his, and his alone.

Paisley had held up her work by failing to co-operate in a timely way with the inquiry that she had taken charge of last January, she made clear. He had taken nine months to produce evidence she was then able to scrutinise and reject.

Evidence

The evidence included an undated “selfie” allegedly taken at an ice-cream van during “an 11th night” bonfire in east Belfast on the eve of that year’s July 12th march by way of proof that he could not have been in Sri Lanka. He had, it seemed, gone to some trouble to track this down. During the same period, he was one of the worst attenders at the Houses of Parliament, but claimed the most expenses (almost a quarter of a million pounds in 2012-13).

Though denying the Daily Telegraph’s allegations, Paisley had no choice at that point but to refer himself to the commission. He declared a trip to Sri Lanka which he had taken in November 2013, but not the family holidays in April and July that year, which the Telegraph valued at £100,000. In her report, Stone comments briskly that when this trip “might reasonably have been expected to trigger some recollection of his recent visits to the country”.

Once reminded of these, Paisley presented calculations and argued that each had cost about £25,000. The inquiry found his figures were “not entirely consistent”. Either way, gifts must be declared if they are worth more than £660, Stone pointed out.

MPs are required to obey disclosure rules “conscientiously”. She said in her report that “donations made by foreign governments can be particularly sensitive. I do not consider hospitality of £25,000 or thereabouts per visit to be a minor financial interest.”

Attention to detail

Paisley’s attention to detail has, by his own account, let him down from time to time. In April this year he shared a tweet from Katie Hopkins in which she made a crass joke linking the murder rate in London with Muslims. Forced to apologise, Paisley said he had merely “glanced” at the tweet before re-tweeting it, and had not seen the comment about Muslims. The original contained just 16 words.

This little incident came just weeks after he called Declan Kearney the “class clown” after the Sinn Féin chairman accused the DUP of displaying “sneering contempt” for women, LGBT people, and the nationalist community.

Paisley has admitted that it would be “preposterous” to claim that the Sri Lankan government had extended generosity to him simply because it liked him. He attempted to persuade the inquiry that he was invited to the country because of his “well-established knowledge of terrorism and post-conflict activities”.

During the final months of the 26-year-long Sri Lankan civil war, between 2008 and 2009, the government massacred tens of thousands of civilians, when its airforce launched sustained aerial bombardments of heavily populated areas. Forty thousand were killed during this time, the vast majority of them by the state; 100,000 died in the 26 years before that, with an additional 65,000 people “disappeared” and presumed dead. The government also bombed hospitals and blocked the delivery of humanitarian aid to victims. These were among the atrocities which led the UN to pass a resolution to establish an investigation into human rights abuses.

British support

Prompted by Sri Lankan concern about British support for a resolution to be moved in the UN Human Rights Council authorising “an international investigation which will uncover the truth about alleged violations on both sides of the conflict”, Paisley and other MPs wrote to David Cameron, saying that “it would internationalise the internal affairs” of the country.

In his letter, Paisley told the then prime minister that he intended to travel to Sri Lanka later in 2014 but did not mention his 2013 trips. This was illegal, and in breach of parliamentary rules. (Cameron ignored him but Sri Lanka has managed to keep the UN at bay.)

Paisley also boasted to Sri Lankan officials that he had “significant arrangements” with oil dealers in Oman and Nigeria and offered to set up meetings. He has since claimed that such offers were “casual”.

The Sri Lankan government was very clear about the reasons for its generosity towards Paisley. As part of its post-peace process international advocacy, it had gone on a mission to find parliamentarians willing to accept extravagant hospitality in a country many live in poverty, and many are struggling with the appalling legacy of the war.

In November 2013 the Daily Telegraph reported that the Sri Lankan High Commission in London claimed that it had managed to find 14 MPs who were “prepared to publicly defend the regime”. Some of them had “been on luxurious trips to Sri Lanka” along with wives or girlfriends.

However, if there is a byelection in north Antrim, few doubt that loyalty will prevail over any qualms about Paisley’s adventures.