Ian Paisley holds on to seat after narrowly surviving recall petition

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Ian Paisley has held on to his Westminster seat after Parliament’s first ever recall petition fell just short of the threshold required to force a by-election.

Mr Paisley would have been ousted as an MP if 10% of the electorate in his North Antrim constituency – 7,543 voters – signed the petition. In the event 7,099 people signed it (9.4%).

The petition device, created following the Westminster expenses scandal, was initiated after Mr Paisley was banned from the House of Commons for 30 sitting days for failing to declare two 2013 family holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government.

A parliamentary watchdog found in August that a year after the luxury holidays, Mr Paisley lobbied then prime minister David Cameron not to support a UN probe into alleged Sri Lankan human rights abuses.

The long-standing Democratic Unionist, whose late father the Reverend Ian Paisley founded the party, is currently suspended from the DUP pending its own internal investigation into his conduct.

Ian Paisley survives Recall Petition
Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland Virginia McVea announces that the recall petition has not passed the threshold to trigger a by-election (Liam McBurney/PA)

Northern Ireland’s Chief Electoral Officer Virginia McVea announced the outcome in Belfast around 1.25am on Thursday morning after a count that commenced at midnight.

“The petition has not been successful,” she said.

Ms McVea communicated the outcome to Speaker John Bercow’s office in London before making the announcement. Mr Paisley, who was not there in person, was informed by text message.

Afterwards Ms McVea rejected criticism that has been levelled at her by Sinn Fein for only opening three centres where people could sign the petition, when the maximum permitted was 10.

She said there had been “unprecedented” access afforded, with the longest ever electoral period in the region and voters able to access postal ballots on demand.

“There has never been access to an electoral event like that before,” said told the Press Association.

“And the three designated places were the three hubs within the North Antrim constituency. Legislation allows for one up to a maximum in any constituency of ten across the UK and we decided on three.”

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said it was clear there was no public appetite for a by-election.

“I respect that outcome,” he said.

“However I would caution Ian Paisley not to see this as some sort of victory or endorsement of his actions in acting as a paid advocate for a foreign government and bringing North Antrim and the House of Commons into disrepute.

“Rather I would urge him to use the time that he has been suspended from Parliament and the DUP, to reflect on the severity of what he has done and the embarrassment he has brought on Northern Ireland. He should demonstrate some humility.”

Ian Paisley: Counting begins in North Antrim recall petition
A total of 7,099 constituents signed the recall petition (Liam McBurney/PA)

It has also given the DUP another headache at a time when the party is under intense scrutiny at public inquiry hearings in Northern Ireland examining its handling of the botched green energy scheme that brought down Stormont powersharing.

An investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards found the cost of the hospitality afforded Mr Paisley and his family may have been “significantly more” than his £50,000 estimate.

It found the Sri Lankan holidays included business-class air travel, accommodation at first-class hotels, helicopter trips and visits to tourist attractions for the North Antrim MP and his wider family.

The trips also included meeting with Sri Lankan governmental figures.

Mr Paisley’s threshold for registering such hospitality in 2013 was around £660.

In March 2014, Mr Paisley wrote to Mr Cameron to lobby against a proposed United Nations resolution setting up an international investigation into alleged human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

In the wake of the watchdog report, Mr Paisley apologised for what he described as an “unintentional failure” to declare the holidays.

In the 2017 general election, Mr Paisley retained his North Antrim seat with a landslide 20,000-plus majority, securing nearly 59% of the vote.

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