DUP MP Ian Paisley holds on to seat after narrowly surviving recall petition

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

Mr Paisley would have lost his seat if 10% of the electorate in North Antrim – 7,543 – 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.

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)

Three centres were opened in North Antrim for the last six weeks to give voters the opportunity to sign the petition. Constituents were also able to put their name to the petition via post.

Northern Ireland’s Chief Electoral Officer Virginia McVea announced the outcome in Belfast around 1.25am 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 before making the announcement. Mr Paisley, who did not attend the announcement, was informed by text message.

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

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

BREAKING. @ianpaisleymp holds onto his seat…just. Petition falls 444 votes short of the 7543 required to force a by-election in North Antrim.

— David Young (@DavidYoungPA) September 20, 2018

Mr Paisley, son of late DUP founder Rev Ian Paisley, is currently suspended from his party pending its own internal investigation into his conduct.

His Commons ban has left current Prime Minister Theresa May shorn of one of her 10 DUP MP confidence and supply allies during a period that could witness several crucial Brexit votes.

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.

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

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.