Colombo Telegraph

Ian Paisley Jr’s Luxury Sri Lankan Escapade: On Hypocrisy & Foreign Affairs Mismanagement

By Chamindra Weerawardhana –

Dr. Chamindra Weerawardhana

On 19th July 2018, the session at the Westminster House of Commons was a sight that said a lot about the polities and politics of both Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka. Ian Paisley Jr MP, offspring of the late Dr Ian Paisley Sr MP [later Lord Bannside] and the Baroness Paisley of St George, delivered a ‘personal’, if not mea culpastatement’, which concerned two luxury holidays in Sri Lanka, fully paid for by the Government of Sri Lanka, for himself and his family. In Paisley’s own admission, “it is with profound personal regret and deep personal embarrassment” that he made his statement [the full text of the statement is available here]. 

The Current Backdrop: Northern Ireland, the Stormont stalemate and the DUP  

To those new to the politics of Northern Ireland, Paisley Jr is the Westminster MP for North Antrim, one of the 18 Westminster constituencies in the Province. At the 2017 UK General Election, the results in Northern Ireland very clearly displayed the emergence of what can be termed a largely ‘two-party’ system in the province’s polity, with 10 of the 18 seats going Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP – founded by our protagonist’s father, the late Ian Paisley Sr), the strongest Unionist voice, and 7 seats to Sinn Féin, the strongest Irish Nationalist voice (Sinn Féin MPs practice a policy of abstentionism, and do not take their seats at the Westminster House of Commons). 

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Executive has been in a months-long stalemate over disagreements between DUP and SF. Although the Good Friday Agreement’s institutions and elite cooperation-focused political makeover was intended at collaborative governance by and representation of all political hues in the province, it eventually led to the somewhat  unexpected outcome of strengthening the strongest advocates of Unionism and Irish nationalism, a development that some analysts describe as the rise of ‘tribune’ parties. Currently, the DUP’s ten MPs hold a significant position in the Conservative Party’s balance of power. Reaching an accord with the DUP, to the tune of allocating £ 1 billion of extra public funds to Northern Ireland over the next two years, was Prime Minister Theresa May’s main strategy to form a ‘minority government’ and remain in power after the 2017 general election resulted in a hung parliament. Consequently, the DUP currently gets more national British media coverage than usual, and is in the limelight on a constant basis. 

In hot water for a sunny holiday? 

To the ardent Unionist and leading DUP figure, things certainly do not look good. 

The House of Commons Committee on Standards (HCCS)has produced a damning report of Paisley Jr’s Sri Lankan escapade. There is a likelihood that he could be forced to stand down and face a by-election. 

On the 19th of July 2018, and as per standard practice, the recommendation of the HCCS to suspend Mr Paisley Jr went before the House, in the form of a motion moved by the Leader of the House. 

A Commons vote then suspended Paisley Jr from the House of Commons for a period of seven weeks, the longest suspension issued for a sitting MP in 15  years. This ban is also estimated to be one of the longest bans issued by the House of Commons in 70 years. Given the DUP’s current arrangements with the British Conservatives, the suspension [to begin on 4th September 2018], affects Theresa May’s parliamentary majority by one vote, which risks affecting key Brexit votes to come in the autumn of 2018.  

As a consequence of legislative changes made in 2015, this ban risks triggering a petition calling for Mr Paisley to stand down [often referred to as a ‘Recall Petition’]. If 10% of the electorate signs the said petition within a duration of six weeks, a by-election should be called in Paisley’s constituency of North Antrim. 

 

Calls for such a recall petition concerning Paisley are already under way in full swing in Northern Ireland. A few examples from social media, which demonstrate how the Paisley Jr suspension has affected the political sphere of Northern Ireland, appear below: 

 

 

 

Some journalists have also zoomed in on Paisley Jr’s hypocrisy and inclination to provide false information, which have been part and parcel of ‘PaisleyGate’ from the beginning.

 

 

The trips: Lankan hospitality in style? 

The two 2013 trips in question cost the Government of Sri Lanka up to a staggering 100,000 GBP. The first trip, according to the HCCS Report, took place from 30 March to 5 April 2013. The second trip was in July 2013, and in a strange coincidence (!), Paisley Jr. apparently had great trouble recalling the exact dates of the visit. According the HCCS Report, 

He [Paisley Jr] told me that he had been in his constituency on 6 April 2013 and that his diary entry for that date confirmed this.35 He said he “did not disagree” that he had returned home sometime early on 5 April 2013. Mr Paisley said again that he was less clear about the dates of his second visit to Sri Lanka in 2013. He said he departed on 1 July and his diary was “blank” for that week. From memory, the itinerary had “chopped and changed” but he was home [in Northern Ireland] for the 12 July parades. He said his diary showed he had been in New York City on 13 July and he would not have arrived home in Northern Ireland on 11 or 12 July and then departed the same day for New York. He said he would have returned from Sri Lanka on either 8 or 9 July 2013. Mr Paisley said that “For a whole host of other reasons I try not to tie down my scheduling in such a precise manner as I do not want too many people getting hold of my daily engagements and movements for security reasons and that is even more pronounced when I travel abroad where I have even less control over such matters as personal security.” (p. 22). 

The discreet luxury trips came to public attention when The Telegraph published an article on 8 September 2017, emphatically entitled “The MP, the £100k gifts and the Brexit trade deal: Questions over Ian Paisley Jr’s register of interests after Sri Lanka trip”. 

Some sections of this article are worth quoting: 

Documents seen by the Telegraph show that Mr Paisley took his wife and four children to the country.

They flew business class, stayed in the finest hotels and were provided with a chauffeur-driven Mercedes, all paid for by the Sri Lankan government.

During discussions with [Sri Lankan] officials, he offered to help the state broker an oil deal, saying he had “significant arrangements with national oil suppliers” in Oman and Nigeria.

When the investigation began, Paisley Jr. was quite reluctant to produce accurate information. To quote the HCCS Report: 

On 30 October 2017 Mr Paisley wrote to the Commissioner.30 He said that he believed he had left for Sri Lanka on 29 March 2013 and returned seven days later. He said that he believed the value of the flights was approximately £5,000, quoting economy flights on Sri Lanka Airlines at approximately £800 per person. Mr Paisley said that the dates for his July trip were “less certain”. He believed that he had travelled out on 2 July and was back in the UK by 8 July 2013. He estimated the flight costs at approximately £4,000. Mr Paisley said his visits had been to enable him “to gain a wider knowledge of the political and social situation on the ground in Sri Lanka” although he had no doubt had some free time. His family had accompanied him but had not attended his official meetings. (p. 20). 

The Evidence that the HCCS obtained from The Telegraph is quoted in full below. It is of importance to expose in detail the sheer lavishness of these (futile) expenses, incurred on Sri Lankan tax payers’ money: 

…an itinerary for a visit from 30 March to 5 April 2013, which had been authorised by the Deputy Chief of Protocol and bore the stamp “Ministry of Foreign Affairs  Minister’s Secretariat”; 

– the itinerary included “air transportation from London-Colombo-London”; a Mercedes and a luxury van for the same dates; hotel accommodation from 30 March to 5 April; and “ground transportation”. The cost of the flights was noted to be 8,000 US dollars; 

  • other documents, including: 
    • –  a Sri Lankan Airlines invoice dated 25 March 2013, for return flights for 6 passengers at a cost of 585,035 Sri Lankan rupees per person. The invoiced total was for 3,510,210 rupees, with a request for payment to be sent to the airline’s accounts department; 
    • – three letters reserving hotel accommodation between 30 March and 5 April, which were sent on 25, 27 March and 1 April 2013; 
    •    a reservation sent on 27 March 2013, by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence and Urban Development to the Commander of the Air Force, for internal flights for Mr Paisley on 1, 3 and 4 April 2013; 
    • – an invoice from a private helicopter tour company sent on 8 April 2013 to the Ministry of External Affairs for flights between 1 April and 5 April 2013, for the sum of 1,208,197.67 rupees, to be paid by cheque to the company. 
    •    a “tentative programme” for a visit between 31 March and 5 April 2013 which showed Mr Paisley’s family scheduled to depart London at 18.00 hours on 30 March, arriving in Sri Lanka on 31 March 2013. The proposed programme included a visit to a Sri Lankan national park, stays at three different hotels, internal flights and transfers at the beginning and end of the visit; and 
  • emails from the Sri Lankan Ministry of External Affairs arranging a visit for Mr Paisley, his wife and two of his children in July 2013. 
    • – a quote for fares, from Sri Lanka Airlines addressed to the Sri Lankan Ministry of External Affairs, dated 17 June 2013, sent to the Minister of External Affairs. The invoice was for 468,422 Sri Lankan rupees per person. (The number of travellers was not given and no dates were specified.); 
    • – a 17 June 2013 quote from a helicopter tour company for flights on 2, 4, 6 and 11 July for four passengers. Each flight was quoted in US dollars: two flights were quoted at 3,950 dollars; one at 3,650 dollars and the fourth at 3,200 dollars; 
    • – emails sent on 21 June 2013 which referred to the visit on 1 to 11 July 2013. These emails were to arrange a visit on 3 July to Sigiriya Rock Fortress; and on 6 July to an elephant orphanage. English-speaking guides were requested. 
  • emails from the Sri Lankan Ministry of External Affairs arranging a visit for Mr Paisley, his wife and two of his children in July 2013. 
    • – a quote for fares, from Sri Lanka Airlines addressed to the Sri Lankan Ministry of External Affairs, dated 17 June 2013, sent to the Minister of External Affairs. The invoice was for 468,422 Sri Lankan rupees per person. (The number of travellers was not given and no dates were specified.); 
    • –  a 17 June 2013 quote from a helicopter tour company for flights on 2, 4, 6 and 11 July for four passengers. Each flight was quoted in US dollars: two flights were quoted at 3,950 dollars; one at 3,650 dollars and the fourth at 3,200 dollars; 
    • – emails sent on 21 June 2013 which referred to the visit on 1 to 11 July 2013. These emails were to arrange a visit on 3 July to Sigiriya Rock Fortress; and on 6 July to an elephant orphanage. English-speaking guides were requested. 

On 3 July the Department of National Zoological Gardens confirmed permission had been granted for the visit to the elephant orphanage “free of charge”; 

  • – an email sent from the Ministry of External Affairs to Sri Lanka Airlines booking business-class seats for Mr Paisley, his wife and two children for 1 July 2013 (leaving London at 21.35 hours) and returning on 11 July 2013 (leaving Colombo at 13.05 hours); 
  • –  an email sent on 28 June 2013 referring to Mr Paisley’s “presentation of credentials” on 3 July 2013; 
  • – hotel reservations, dated 28 June 2013 booking “deluxe” rooms at three hotels for Mr Paisley’s family for the period 2 to 10 July 2013; and 
  • – a request for landing permission, made on 4 July 2013 by the Sri Lankan Ministry of External Affairs, for a helicopter to land later that day. The request was titled “Visit of Hon Ian Paisley, Member of Parliament, United Kingdom and his family 1st to 11th July 2013”. (pp. 26-27). 

The legal limbo

The primary reason why this trip has caused controversy is the fact that it breaches a parliamentary rule applying to all MPs, that they have to register all family holidays, as long as they are “wholly unconnected with membership of the House or with the Member’s parliamentary or political activities”. The Register of Members’ Financial Interests is an important mechanism for accountability. It enables MPs to declare income, gifts or affiliations that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest with their parliamentary roles. 

According to the HCCS Report, expenses that go beyond the registration threshold of the time [660 GBP] should be declared, and the entries in the register should be highly detailed, covering the costs of travel, hotels, meals, hospitality and care hire. 

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy nightmares: When paying won’t pay

In 2012, the Rajapaksa administration funded a sum of GBP 3200 to a visit by a cross-party delegation of British MPs to Sri Lanka. Earlier that year, Paisley had also visited Sri Lanka on a trade mission.

Subsequently, Paisley Jr and his family were paid two luxury holidays in the sun, entirely at the cost of the Government of Sri Lanka. The objective was to lure the then British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Conservative Government [via Ian Paisley Jr] to subvert the UK’s Sri Lanka policy in favour of the Rajapaksa administration, and request for support especially with regards to Sri Lanka-related UN HRC resolutions and the island’s overall post-war ‘image’ in the West. 

‘Sri Lanka lobbying’ by Paisley Jr. ?

As a consequence of the Sri Lankan pampering, Paisley Jr wrote to Prime Minister Cameron on 19 March 2014, calling upon him to “lobby against a proposed United Nations resolution setting up an international investigation into alleged human rights abuses in Sri Lanka”. 

According to the HCCS Report, 

He [Paisley Jr] wrote to the Prime Minister on 19 March 2014 urging him not to support the UN motion which “internationalised” the dispute within Sri Lanka. That letter amounted to paid advocacy, putting Mr Paisley in breach of paragraph 11 of the 2012 Code of Conduct for Members (p. 32). 

Above: Ian Paisley Jr MP with Amari Wijewardene, former High Commissioner of Sri Lanka to the UK and Ambassador to Ireland, at Westminster, September 2017. Source: The Telegraph

The efforts have continued, and in September 2017, Paisley Jr published a photograph on his social media, posing with the then Sri Lankan High Commissioner in London, a kinswoman of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. The caption of the photograph read “With Sri Lanka high commissioner to discuss NI-Sri Lanka trade deal after Brexit.”

Two days after that meeting, Paisley Jr posted yet another photo with yet another ‘friend’ of Sri Lanka in the Conservative Party, Dr Liam Fox, who was at the time International Trade Secretary. 

 

Above: Paisley Jr with Dr Liam Fox, September 2017. Source: The Telegraph

Fox, like Paisley Jr, has had long-standing links with Sri Lanka dating back to the mid-1990s [which, for their part, have also continued]. 

Repercussions for Sri Lankan foreign policy?  

The Paisley Jr suspension should serve as a much-needed ‘wake-up call’ to the Government of Sri Lanka. 

Politics of shady networking, by luring foreign policymakers with lavish gifts, holidays and perks is a strategy all too frequently used by Sri Lankan authorities as a ‘networking method’. This applies to both UNP and SLFP-led coalitions and consequently, also to the current Joint Government. As mentioned above, Paisley Jr has his place in a list of British MPs who benefitted from generous treatment by the Government of Sri Lanka. Another notorious MP who has a place in that list was James Wharton, who was MP for Stockton South from May 2010 to May 2017. He happened to be a frequent visitor to Sri Lanka and a defender of the Rajapaksa administration in the British House of Commons. 

Above: Wharton, first from right, visiting Northern Sri Lanka in 2012. Source: The Independent

While the Rajapaksa administration was mostly keen to approach Tory MPs, the current Joint Government in Colombo has a record of courting British exponents of [to say the very least…] neoliberal capitalism, such as an infamous Tony Blair, who was given a luxury family holiday in Sri Lanka in the summer of 2015. Commentators in Sri Lanka, including this writer, hammered the Joint Government over the invitation. 

To anyone familiar with the basics of foreign policy praxis, bilateralism and international relations, it does not take long to realise that such luring is almost always futile, especially when it is done à la sri lankaise, with no concrete policy formulation-related ‘basis’, intensive and highly informative background research, and clearly-outlined short, medium, and long-term targets. When this kind of lobbying is done with British MPs, and when one observes how these MPs are received in Colombo, one is stuck by a strongly ‘colonial’ dimension. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sri Lanka (APPGSL), for example, echoes colonial undertones. Despite all attempts to make things sound diplomatic, it is a mechanism of the former colonial power, responsible for major atrocities and violations of fundamental rights on Sri Lankan soil, to watch over developments in Sri Lanka. While maintaining good links with APPGSL is of importance and use, one of the major problems lie in the way in which such links are handled in Colombo. When Sri Lankan MPs visit the House of Commons, they get to meet their counterparts, within the parliamentary structure. Unless in the case of a ministerial visit or a state visit by the Prime Minister or the President, visiting MPs do not get appointments at Downing Street or with the Royals. They do not get high-level meetings with cabinet ministers. In Sri Lanka, almost any British backbencher and Westminster political novice gets to meet the highest officials, and receive VVVIP treatment. Addressing such disparities is a key element in strengthening Sri Lanka-UK relations and in enhancing the productivity of bilateral ties. 

Pointless expenses? 

In short, expenses of this nature show the lack of diplomatic savviness among Sri Lankan diplomats and policymakers. They are unfavourable to Sri Lanka’s interests. Despite Colombo paying so much money [from public funds] to Paisley Jr’s holiday, Sri Lanka-related UN resolutions went ahead, the British government maintained its hostile policy towards the Rajapaksa administration, and when opportunity presented itself, supported a regime change operation. A key culprit of lobbying individual MPs with perks was an infamous Anglo-Sri Lankan, a tea merchant and a medical doctor, who, together with the cohort of other lobbyists who were running the Sri Lankan foreign policy apparatus at the time, should be investigated by Sri Lankan authorities for the mismanagement of public funds and for disgracing Republic on the world stage. 

Since 9 January 2015, the British government and the West at large operates with the relative satisfaction of making the regime change happen. However, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy apparatus has failed to positively capitalise upon the post-2015 scenario for the best interests of Sri Lanka. This, if anything, is the result of a lack of strong strategizing and problems in the effective deployment of expertise. From the appointment of top diplomats to the running of high commissions, embassies and consulates abroad and the formulation of foreign policy in Colombo, there is a significant lack of best practice and strategizing. 

Most importantly perhaps, the biggest shortfall is in terms of institutional culture in the Sri Lankan foreign policy apparatus. 

Lack of Assessment of Sri Lanka’s Present-day Needs? 

The Sri Lankan foreign policy establishment as we know it is a creation of the post-1948 Dominion [and, to a lesser extent, of the subsequent the Sri Lankan Republic]. It was originally created for the needs of the Dominion State and based on Western templates of the time. From today’s vantage point, this makes the Sri Lankan foreign policy structure extremely archaic, difficult to navigate, dramatically lacking in accountability, skills, expertise and most importantly, a comprehensive and constant assessment of the evolving foreign policy NEEDS and REQUIREMENTS of the Sri Lankan state and people. 

Systemic Flaws in Governance? 

These problems are further aggravated by broader shortcomings in the entire governmental, civil service and diplomatic structures at large. To give but one crucial example, Sri Lanka lacks a system of effectively and courteously ‘transferring/handing over’ power, prerogatives and responsibility at all levels of government. 

The lack of hand-overs means that projects begun under one government lapse and are obliterated by another government. As one minister leaves a ministry at the end of a term of office, for example, there is next to no ceremonial or policy-related handover structure. This is a problem that exists at the highest levels of government, starting from the offices of the President and the Prime Minister. It then trickles down to the lowest echelons of public service and governance. Things then take surreal turns, with new governments regularly taking U-turns in relation to the policies and programmes of previous governments. The commonplace culture of ‘political revenge’ [deshapalana paliganeem] is also interlinked to this lack of transferability. 

Not new problems? 

There is a key factor that we should take stock of – that these problems have somewhat long historical antecedents. Without understanding how they gradually came in to being and got institutionalised, we cannot move towards effective ways of addressing the issues involved. 

The Ceylonese Democracy that the likes of Sir Ivor Jennings celebrated, was, in reality, a hollow colonial experiment. Scholars such as Dr Harshan Kumarasingham have argued that the model democracy of the latter years of the Crown Colony and the early years of the Dominion State of Ceylon was a far cry from what it was often described to be. This democratic experiment was one that strengthened, if not paved new avenues for patronage politics. Some analysts blame the post-1977 political scenario for the present-day ills of clientelist and exploitative politics. While there is a good deal of truth to this analysis, it should not be forgotten that things were far from rosy in the earlier decades. It was in these decades that politics of patronage, clientelism, and a brand of party politics where best practice in governance (such as hand-over policies, a focus on accountability) were of lesser importance, were all entrenched in to the Ceylonese/Sri Lankan body politic. It is this same Dominion State political culture that provided a fertile ground for a brand of dynastic high politics, with certain ‘political families’ claiming ownership of political parties. It was in this backdrop that a highly bureaucratic foreign policy apparatus emerged,  with a diplomatic corps composed of people considered as ‘refined’ and ‘educated’ in accordance with Western colonial standards. As the old guard of English-educated diplomats and bureaucrats [many of whom therefore happened to be extremely well-read and ‘high-performing’ – when their legacies are seen through the prism of the colonial standards of diplomatic management that some of us still uphold] faded away, things further worsened. 

Over the years, successive generations of diplomats have fallen victim to a range of broader socio-political issues, including a system of education that does not help us with our needs as a people. Public administration is faced with the challenge of managing a highly saturated bureaucracy. Public sector bureaucrats often lack the training, and the knowledge base imperatively required to ensure high-quality public policy provision and effective management. The diplomatic corps, for its part, is considerably ill-equipped to handle diplomacy-related 21st century challenges faced by a post-colonial, South Asian, ethno-nationally diverse, multi-religious and multilingual small state geographically positioned in a highly crucial spot in terms of the geostrategic currents in operation in the South and Southeast Asian region. 

Not up to date? 

This is why, as a people, we are often left with the all-too-familiar frustrating feeling that we have administrative and governmental structures that have their place in yesteryear and not in the modern digital age. The world has moved on since the days of the Dominion State [and also since the outburst of post-Cold War liberal internationalism]. In terms of foreign policy formulation, we have not been effective in steering our foreign policy in such a way that we can capitalise upon the emergent ‘Eastphalian’ global dynamics, global dialogues on best practice in governance, and most importantly, emergent multi-pronged approaches all over the world that challenge post- and neo-colonial patterns of governance, public policy, education, economic management and all other spheres. Modern discourses on decolonial governance, developed all around the world from Aotearoa and the Indigenous territories we know as Australia to Turtle Island, as well as the concept of the Pluriversity and decolonial approaches to all aspects of education, are among many developments that Sri Lanka can learn a great deal from, when drafting policies that are relevant to the 21st century. In other words, diplomats of a country like Sri Lanka need a ‘different’, if not non-conventional, dynamic and  a quintessentially ‘decolonial’ knowledge base, which needs to be combined with traditional, Western, if not Westphalian-style diplomatic training. 

The bottom line? 

The bottom line then, is, what drove the Government of Sri Lanka to spend £ 100,000 GBP of taxpayers’ money for Ian Paisley Jr’s luxury holiday is a lot more than the Rajapaksa administration’s absolutely disastrous foreign policy myopia and mismanagement. The Paisley holiday is a symbol of a much broader political and strategic problem, the effects of which are acutely felt at all levels of government, the civil service, the diplomatic service, and also the armed forces. 

What we need, then, is to go beyond the usual critique of  foreign policy shortcomings of successive governments. Instead, we need a more in-depth analysis, delving into the bottom of the crisis, and critically questioning how we manage foreign policy, where our foreign affairs knowledge base comes from, how, and for whose interests it is formulated [or not?], who we send as our top representatives to sensitive duty stations abroad, and how we can move towards public policy, foreign policy and economic policy that focus on the best interests of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans. 

Note – This article previously [and erroneously] stated that at the 2017 General Election, Sinn Féin won 8 out of the 18 Westminster seats in Northern Ireland. The error was corrected on 22 July 2018. 

*The writer (@fremancourt), is a political analyst and international consultant, shuttling between Belfast and Colombo. 

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