Ian Paisley apologises at supporters' meeting

By Stephen Walker
BBC News NI Political Correspondent

Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
DUP councillor John Finlay organised Monday's meeting to support Ian Paisley

The suspended DUP MP Ian Paisley has apologised for his behaviour to party supporters at a North Antrim meeting.

Mr Paisley was suspended by the House of Commons and the DUP for failing to declare family holidays paid for by the Sri Lanka Government.

He addressed about 60 supporters at the meeting near Gracehill, County Antrim.

DUP Councillor John Finlay, who organised the meeting, said Mr Paisley apologised for his behaviour and said he had made a mistake.

Mr Finlay said the audience were "very courteous and supportive to him".

He said people in North Antrim want him to remain as an MP and if there was an election, Mr Paisley would be the candidate.

Mr Paisley did not speak to the media before or after the meeting.

Mimicking the actions of the Conservative MP Boris Johnson, a number of Mr Paisley's supporters served tea and biscuits to the waiting media.

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The North Antrim MP could face a by-election if 10% of his constituents sign a petition.

A recall ballot, where voters can sign a petition calling for a by-election, has been opened.

The recall petition is the first in UK parliamentary history.

Analysis - 'Amongst friends'

In politics they say when you are explaining you are often losing the argument. In recent weeks Ian Paisley has been doing a lot of explaining.

This meeting was organised by supporters of Ian Paisley so the suspended MP was speaking to a very receptive audience.

He was in the company of people who had canvassed and campaigned for him and people who will clearly support him again.

The specially invited crowd included local councillors, party officers and students. The audience included members of his family.

When the MP arrived in the room he was greeted by applause and cheers. He gave an apology for his actions and explained he had made a mistake.

It would not have been a straightforward meeting but he was amongst friends so he knew he would get a supportive response.

As the weeks unfold he must hope he gets a similar hearing amongst the electorate of North Antrim.

In a letter to activists ahead of the meeting, Mr Finlay said Mr Paisley had received a "very severe punishment".

He said some people are using the current situation to try and unseat him.

Media caption,
Ian Paisley's personal statement in full

"I think we can all agree with the Speaker of the House, Mr John Bercow MP, when he said it was 'a regrettable state of affairs'," said Mr Finlay.

"I trust also that you will have been saddened by the subsequent torrent of condemnation and abuse our friend has suffered since the issue became public."

He added that people have supported him during the good times and that it was now important to back him when times were not so good.

Recall ballot

Venues in Ballymena, Ballymoney and Ballycastle have been opened where voters can sign a petition calling for a by-election.

According to the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland (EONI), the number of people entitled to sign the petition - or eligible registered voters - is 75,478.

The Recall of MPs Act 2015 requires a petition to be signed by 10% of that number in order to trigger a by-election.

The number of signatures required would have been 7,547, but last week the Electoral Office said the figure was 7,543 - due to a "sweep" of the register removing deceased voters and others who were not eligible.

If that number of signatures are gathered, Mr Paisley would be forced to resign and a by-election would be called - an election Mr Paisley has said he would fight.

What is a recall petition?

This is a fairly recent addition to politics, becoming law under the Recall of MPs Act which came into effect in 2016.

It states that MPs who are convicted of a criminal offence and jailed, convicted of providing false information on allowance claims or barred from the House of Commons for 10 sitting days or longer can lose their seat if there is a successful petition to recall them.

Image source, PAcemaker
Image caption,
The petition is open for signing for six weeks from 8 August to 19 September

Last month, Mr Paisley received a ban from Westminster of 30 sitting days for breaching parliamentary rules, beginning on 4 September, which triggered the recall procedure.

How long is the petition open?

The petition is open for signing for six weeks from 8 August to 19 September from 09:00-17:00 BST, Monday to Friday.

Opening hours at the designated centres will be extended to 21:00 on 6 and 13 September.

Who can sign it?

Letters have already been sent to constituents informing them about the details of the petition.

Anyone wanting to sign it must live in the North Antrim constituency and be 18 years old, or have their 18th birthday before the end of the signing period on 19 September.

But just like in any normal election, anyone wanting to sign it must also be registered to vote in parliamentary elections.

Where can the petition be signed?

The Electoral Office selected three designated venues which are located at:

  • Joey Dunlop Leisure Centre, Ballymoney
  • Seven Towers Leisure Centre, Ballymena
  • Sheskburn House Recreation Centre, Ballycastle
Image caption,
The petition can be signed at three centres

Legislation allows for up to 10 locations for the petition but the electoral office has opened three, a decision which drew criticism from some political parties.

Voters can also apply to sign by post or proxy. Applications for those must be returned to the Electoral Office by 4 September.

The chief electoral officer, Virginia McVea, said there had been a change in the law in relation to the postal application so anyone who chooses not to attend in person will be able to apply for the postal option and if their details are verified, can receive it within six weeks.

Applications can be downloaded at eoni.org.uk.

There are two help lines for constituents who have queries about the process.

They are 02890446600 and 02890446668.

What happens when the petition closes?

If the number of signatures reaches or surpasses 7,543 it will trigger a by-election and Mr Paisley will lose his seat.

There would be nothing to stop him from standing in the by-election, however, and he has already indicated that he would do so.

He has been the MP for North Antrim since 2010.