Ian Paisley Jr. (pictured below), MP for North Antrim in Northern Ireland, faces going down in history as the first ever UK MP to be recalled to face a by-election by his constituents.
The son of the late Ian Paisley Snr., the fiercely Unionist and Protestant evangelical minister who underwent a damascene conversion in later life to strongly support the Northern Ireland peace process, faces a recall petition which could legally trigger a by-election.
Under the 2015 Recall of MPs Act, sponsored in Parliament by then-Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, MPs can be recalled to face a by-election if 10% of their constituency’s electorate sign the petition within a 6 week time period. A petition of recall can be triggered under any of the following scenarios:
- An MP is convicted of a criminal offence and jailed
- They have been suspended from the Commons for 10 days or more
- An MP is convicted of providing false information on allowance claims
It is the second of these scenarios which applies to Ian Paisley Jr., who will be suspended for 30 days commencing from 4 September after a vote of MPs on 21 July. He has also been suspended pending investigation by his own party, the DUP.
The origins of Mr. Paisley Jr.’s suspension from the Commons relate to an expenses and register of interests scandal. In September 2017, The Daily Telegraph reported that he had taken two holidays with his family in Sri Lanka, all at the generous expense of the Sri Lankan government and failed to report this on his register of interests. Mr. Paisley Jr. initially vehemently denied the claims, calling them ‘devoid of logic’ and said The Telegraph had been defamatory. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards subsequently confirmed an inquiry into the allegations made against Mr. Paisley Jr.
1/2 The Daily Telegraph article is defamatory. It is devoid of fact or logic. Referred to my lawyer.
— Ian Paisley MP (@ianpaisleymp) 7 September 2017
Unfortunately for Mr. Paisley Jr., defamation law requires a claim to be made which is harmful to an individual’s reputation to be false in order for it to be deemed defamatory. While The Telegraph hadn’t uncovered the full facts of the story, it wasn’t to Paisley Jr.’s advantage – the Parliamentary Standards Committee found he had, in fact, accepted not two, but three luxury, all-expense paid holidays.
Producing their report in July of this year, the Committee concluded that Mr. Paisley Jr. had brought ‘the House into disrepute’ and committed ‘serious misconduct’, recommending the Commons suspend him for 30 days, the longest suspension of a sitting MP since 1949, according to the House of Commons library. The Committee also noted that in 2014 Mr. Paisley Jr. had written to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to lobby against supporting a UN resolution on Sri Lanka over human rights abuses. While acknowledging that there was inconsistent guidance on the registering of trips, they still found that by failing to report the trips, the MP for North Antrim ‘breached the rule against paid advocacy’.
A decidedly more contrite Ian Paisley Jr. apologised in the Commons the following day, denying he had any ‘ulterior motive for that genuine mistake’ in 2013 to register the trips, but accepting his ‘total failure’ to do so.
From 8 August-19 September, 8am-5pm Monday to Friday, three electoral centres in Ballymena, Ballymoney, and Ballycastle are open to allow registered North Antrim constituents to sign the recall petition. There has been considerable criticism from some quarters of the Northern Irish electoral office’s decision to only open three electoral centres in the very geographically spread constituency. The Recall of MPs Act 2015 allows for up to 10 different polling centres to be opened.
The magic number to trigger a by-election is 7,543. Although the number of eligible registered voters in North Antrim is 75,578, the 10% recall figure is based on removing deceased and other ineligibles from the electoral register.
Even if a by-election is triggered, and Mr Paisley Jr. has to return to cringeworthy and slightly creepy photo shoots like that above, it’s unlikely he’ll lose. In the 2017 General Election, he won with a majority of over 20,000 and remains a popular figure in North Antrim.
The register of interest expenses scandal isn’t the first time Mr Paisley Jr. has been in the headlines for controversial reasons. He has previously made statements of a homophobic nature, even in 2005 resulting in the Northern Ireland Policing Board formally censuring him for one such comment, although in a 2011 interview he claimed he had ‘grown up’ since then.
The real significance of Mr Paisley Jr.’s suspension from Parliament is because of the Conservative government’s reliance on the DUP’s 10 MPs to possess a parliamentary majority on Brexit, defence and economic matters – a confidence and supply arrangement which came at the price of £1 billion in extra investment in Northern Ireland.
With Mr Paisley Jr.’s suspension and possible further inaction due to a by-election, the Conservative-DUP majority falls to 4 in real terms (the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein always abstaining from participating in the Commons makes 322 the number for a Commons majority). Cue further nervier times ahead for Prime Minister Theresa May.