Brazen Paisley emblematic of DUP disregard for accountability
Sammy Wilson’s staunch defence of MP fails to distract from a brass-necked disposition
The poet WR Rodgers once said of Ian Paisley snr, “there but for the grace of God, goes God”. But if the Big Man was a bit of a bully, the son is better known as a buffoon. Yesterday evening MPs voted to apply the sanction recommended by the Commons Committee on Standards. Its chairman spelled it out: the North Antrim MP was guilty of serious misconduct capable of bringing parliament itself into disrepute. The DUP was forced to face up to the gravity of the situation and suspend Paisley from party membership.
Up to that point the party had seemed to think it could brazen it out.
Incapable of recognising his disgrace, Ian Paisley jnr was enjoying his stint as the repentant sinner. He had opined on human frailty, expressed his admiration for those who can apologise and move on – that is to say, himself – and proudly declared himself to be “man enough” to face his detractors. As though facing martyrdom, he had puffed out his chest and declared that he would not “go quietly into the night”.
Looking back, he found himself deeply moved by his performance of contrition in the House of Commons last week. In a long statement carried in the Ballymena Guardian, he reflected that there must have been others in the chamber thinking, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
He knows his party. The DUP’s local party chairman said he was “immensely proud” of Paisley, describing him as a “great unionist” and a “good man”. Fellow MP Jeffrey Donaldson had reassured him the party was “not going to take a lynch mob approach”.
That would in fact be impossible – a lynch mob deems a person guilty just because they are accused and proceeds without further inquiry to torture and hang the perceived culprit. Paisley was exposed by an investigative journalist and was then found guilty following a lengthy and detailed investigation by a commission set up by the parliament he swore to serve honourably, and led by a distinguished public figure. He denied wrongdoing at every opportunity and obstructed the investigation.
By proposing the heaviest sanction available to her, a 30-day suspension from parliament, Commissioner for Standards at the House of Commons Kathryn Stone indicated the gravity of the offences.
Paisley had lobbied against international scrutiny of a Sri Lankan government that had carried out the mass murder of its own civilians. He did so without declaring that this same government had spent tens of thousands of pounds on him in the preceding year. Paisley said on Tuesday that he was by no means embarrassed about the human rights record of the Sri Lankan government.
He implied that it had met the cardinal rule applied by the DUP to international situations – like the unionist rulers of Northern Ireland, it had needed to do what was necessary to deal with terrorists.
Oh well. At least Sammy Wilson MP took a principled stand. “He must be treated in accordance with the standards he has demanded of others. He must go!” he said. No, wait, sorry. That was what Wilson had said about a Sinn Féin politician earlier this year. What he actually said about the MP for North Antrim was that, given his apology, “I don’t believe that there should be any additional sanctions imposed on him”.
Wilson accused the BBC of having a “brass neck” for attempting to press him on the matter. Paisley is himself fond of denigrating people in this way, usually in the context of refusing to “take any lectures”. Jim Allister, the sole MLA for the Traditional Unionist Voice party, denounced Paisley jnr on Tuesday but suggested that, for “someone of a brazen disposition”, the parliamentary suspension might seem worth it given the lavishness of the gifts received. It is a squalid thought – but then Paisley’s garish appetite for Mammon has long been on show.
The deeper issue is that the Paisley scandal is symptomatic of the DUP’s absolute refusal to be accountable, until it is impossible to avoid it. This is particularly dangerous given the current British prime minister’s purchased dependence on the party for her government’s survival.
A recent survey showed that the proportion of those in the North who would vote to remain in the EU has risen from the 56 per cent who voted this way in the referendum to 69 per cent. But Theresa May’s visit to the North last week was a calculated snub to everyone other than the DUP, which is staunchly pro-Brexit.
Her speech was full of fawning references to the importance of “our union” (as opposed to that nasty bureaucratic European one). She quoted Churchill’s tribute to the loyal Ulster men, without whose sacrifices “the light which now shines so strongly throughout the world would have been quenched”.
May extolled the North’s economic ties to the UK – though business leaders last week warned that its economy is on the brink of recession, citing the absence of a devolved executive at Stormont and the uncertainties arising from Brexit as two key factors.
The DUP seems not to care. In defence of his Sri Lankan activities, Paisley said: “Anyway our own country has a government made up of terrorists.” The DUP has never accepted the Belfast Agreement. It has no problem with the British government’s willingness to wreck it by crashing out of the EU. Sammy Wilson says May should “take a leaf out of Trump’s book” and brazen it out with the EU “bullies”. The DUP has no problem with a hard border. It does have a problem with brass-necked Paisley.