Westminster byelection may be inevitable following Ian Paisley suspension
DUP member has solid support in North Antrim base and likely to be returned as an independent
The committee’s recommendation that the MP should be suspended for 30 sitting days from the House of Commons for failing to register taking two family holidays to Sri Lanka paid for by the Sri Lankan government has opened a door for his political opponents.
South Down SDLP Assembly member Colin McGrath said if Paisley does not resign, his party will be triggering a Recall Petition in the North Antrim constituency.
Under this mechanism if 10 per cent of the eligible electorate of about 75,000 in North Antrim signed the petition, Paisley would be ousted as an MP and a byelection held.
This would require about 7,500 people to sign such a petition. In last year’s election Sinn Féin and the SDLP won close to 10,500 votes between them.
DUP sources believe the 7,500 figure is achievable, particularly with the possibility of some Alliance, Ulster Unionist Party and Traditional Unionist Voice voters also quite disposed to making life difficult for both Paisley and the DUP.
But before any possible byelection, DUP party officers must decide what, if any, penalty they should enforce on Paisley. One possibility is that he would lose the party whip.
But then DUP leader Arlene Foster and senior party figures would be left with the dilemma of whether and when he should have the whip restored if they wanted him to still carry the DUP colours in North Antrim.
Paisley is not universally loved within the DUP. He is seen as a maverick. There have been long-standing strains between the Peter Robinson and Paisley family wings of the party, and these have continued since Robinson passed on the leadership to Foster.
“He has never really been seen as a team player; he is seen as always out for himself,” said a senior DUP source. “His standing would not be great within the party; I think that is obvious by the fact that, to my memory, he was never elected as a party officer.”
One of the party’s 10 MPs was more supportive while acknowledging that “there have been tensions around Ian” within the DUP for a considerable period of time.
“He is an affable guy, he gets on well with everybody,” said the MP. “I don’t think there will be anybody out for his blood or would want to see him any harm.”
Pointing to how Paisley has solid support in his North Antrim base, the MP said, “He has had to get out from under the shadow of his da and he has done that very well, becoming his own man. He is an asset to the party.”
Paisley got the highest vote – 28,521 – of any candidate in the 18 Northern Ireland constituencies in last year’s Westminster election, and was close to 21,000 votes ahead of his nearest rival in that election, Sinn Féin’s Cara McShane.
Even as an independent candidate, Paisley would be overwhelming favourite to be returned.
In such a scenario, the DUP leadership would have to decide whether it was preferable to have him continuing to make an embarrassment of himself – and of the party – outside or inside the fold.