The best authority for luxury Sri Lankan sun holidays in Northern Ireland, Ian Paisley Jr. caused controversy last July, when he was suspended for 30 sitting days from the British House of Commons, for breaching parliamentary rules, by not disclosing the details of his luxury Sri Lankan escapades, all paid for by Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa administration. For more information about the exact circumstances surrounding the two all-expenses-paid-for luxury trips offered to Paisley Jr by the Government of Sri Lanka and resulting repercussions, click here, for this writer’s article published in The Colombo Telegraph on 21st July 2018. It has since emerged, in Sri Lankan political circles, that the real cost of the two trips would be much higher than the GBP 100,000 mentioned in the British and Irish press.
Paisley’s Sri Lankan sojourn provides insights into the mismanagement of Sri Lankan foreign policy under the Rajapaksa administration [Dec 2005-January 2015]. As this writer has repeatedly argued, shady partnerships with controversial politicians representing socially conservative political parties should not have any place whatsoever in foreign policy praxis. In the end, the luxury trips to Sri Lanka, the sun holidays and lobbying with Paisley Jr, a few other British Conservative MPs and peers, and politicos sharing similar ideologies in other countries did not bring Sri Lanka a single foreign policy victory. Foreign affairs mismanagement, and accommodating space for highly incompetent individuals to manage foreign policy, happened to be the key factors that led to the ultimate downfall of the Rajapaksa administration in early 2015.
The Paisley case is no coincidence, and its unfolding says a lot about Paisley Jr and his party, the Democratic Unionist Party, one of the most regressive, socially conservative, misogynist, and to put it simply ‘backward’ parties in Western Europe. The DUP is the main obstacle that prevents the extension of progressive Westminster legislation to Northern Ireland. The best example is the 2013 Marriage [Same Sex Couples] Act, which does not apply to Northern Ireland, primarily due to DUP opposition.
The DUP’s intransigence is the main political reason why Northern Ireland continues to stick to some of the most outdated abortion laws in Western Europe. The fact that these laws of yesteryear should and can be successfully repealed and replaced by modern, respectful and equity-focused legislation, was evident in the successful 2018 #Repealthe8th referendum campaign in the Irish Republic. In Northern Ireland, there is tremendous public support to the implementation of modern, bodily autonomy-focused reproductive justice legislation. But that public support cannot be transformed into political action and actual legislation, for as long as the Province’s largest political party, the DUP, clings to its dinosaur-era perspective on women’s rights.
The Paisley Jr Recall Petition: A Failure
A ‘recall petition’, to oust Paisley Jr and call for a by-election in his constituency of North Antrim, was put in place as soon as the controversy broke in London.
It was reported earlier this week that Paisley Jr’s star was good.
The recall petition fell short of the 10 per cent of electorate signatures required to force a by-election. In Paisley Jr’s constituency of North Antrim, this means a total of 7,543 signatures. The petition fell short of a mere 444 signatures, enabling Paisley Jr to avoid a by-election and retain his Westminster seat. The announcement came from Northern Ireland’s Chief Electoral Office Virginia McVea on 20th September 2018.
Once the result came in, the DUP, which had suspended Paisley Jr soon after his suspension from Westminster, lifted the suspension and he was readmitted to the Party. However, the DUP has also revealed that its ban on Paisley Jr. from holding office within the Party is still in force for a 12-month period.
North Antrim: Welcome to Paisley Country!
The constituency of North Antrim has a strong support base for anyone carrying the ‘Paisley’ name. Ian’s late paterfamilias Paisley Sr. held that constituency for almost 40 years. The devotion of the electorate to Paisley was evident when the Belfast Telegraph talked to constituents about Ian Jr’s Sri Lankan escapade. One constituent claimed [and I kid you not]:
It wasn’t very nice but he has apologised and said that he was sorry,” she said.
“I would be a DUP voter and this wouldn’t change my mind.”I don’t think he actually meant it until he realised it afterwards.”Most people who vote DUP will think the same as me. We can forgive and forget. “That is what the Lord says we should do.
“I think we should forget about what happened and just concentrate on the really great work he did and continues to do.”
The outcome of the Recall Petition is highly revealing, in terms of the political engagement of the electorate in Northern Ireland. As one commentator said, this result is not a vote of confidence in Paisley Jr, but an indication of how much Northern Irish voters have turned their backs on local politics. This commentary provides insight into how the recall petition process was carried out, and why not many constituents were keen to vote:
In Paisley’s last election win [at the 2017 UK General Election], 20,000 voters cast ballots for non-DUP parties. In that election, there were 49 voting booths to do so across North Antrim. For the recall petition, the electoral commission only opened three booths across the whole constituency of just under 76,000 voters.
On top of this, at the main booth in a local leisure centre, there was no anonymity. Unlike with elections, attending a booth for a recall petition indicates in itself your voting intention. Despite this, the positioning of the booth made it extremely public who was voting, so much so the local Sinn Fein representative demanded it be changed. The electoral commission moved it, to an area of the centre which was completely impossible to find – you had to go through a myriad of back staircases and even a fire door. It was so poor it then had to be moved back.
The other Unionist parties in Northern Ireland, especially the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), were both confident that the Recall Petition would pass, and were not keen on campaigning for the Petition to be successful. In other words, the Unionist parties were not especially keen on actively campaigning for the success of the Recall Petition. This can be interpreted as a decision of the Unionist parties to protect one of the most influential voices of ‘their own’, irrespective of how corrupt and problematic that person is. The only strong support for the Petition came from Sinn Féin. TUV, for instance, appears to have taken into account the Brexit dimension. Its leader Jim Allister is, just like Ian Jr, a diehard Brexit supporter. Those who stand for Brexit would want someone like Ian Jr to have his place in the DUP’s Westminster ‘team’.
The reaction of the Unionist parties is also likely to have been influenced by recent election experiences. When the renewable heat incentive [RHI] scandal – a failed and grossly mismanaged renewable energy strategy that cost the taxpayer some GBP 500 million – broke out in the late 2016-2017 quarter, the DUP stood at the 2017 UK General Election and was very successful. The controversy surround RHI and the mishandling of public funds did not in any way affect the DUP’s electoral prospects. In other words, the majority of voters in Northern Ireland [echoing common practice in many deeply divided societies elsewhere] prioritise constitutional issues and ethnonationalist factors when casting their vote. Good governance, transparency, financial discipline, investment promotion and accountability are the last things in the minds of many voters when they cast their ballot.
Ian Paisley Jr therefore gets to remain MP for North Antrim, and will return to Westminster when his suspension is over in a couple of weeks. Being the hotbed of controversies and scandals it is, the DUP is likely to continue business as usual. This has been enabled by the political structures in place – the consociational arrangement of governance introduced by the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, which strengthens the hands of the most hardline ‘tribune’ parties on either side. In other words, there is no one who can challenge the DUP’s power base, and the influence of its key figures such as Ian Jr.
Despite this grim reality, Northern Ireland is also home to a vibrant and fast-growing demographic that calls for progressive change and good governance. Apart from robust activism for reproductive justice and marriage equality, there is also a great deal of humour, and caricaturing of the likes of Ian Paisley Jr that helps add colour and laughter to what really is a rather grim set of political prospects. A few examples of such political sarcasm appear below:
One photo, published by the social media handle @ladfleg, well-known for its parodies of the political life of Northern Ireland, showed Ian Paisley Jr, being carried by colleagues, celebrating. The Sri Lankan national flag is a photoshopped yet highly revealing addition. No one would be surprised if Ian Jr did celebrate wrapping himself around a Sri Lankan flag! This image, and yet another image in which Paisley Jr and First Minister [and DUP leader] Arlene Foster grinning away and setting off on a motorbike, are making many rounds on social media.
This entire saga came at a high cost to the tax payer in Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland. The Recall Petition came at a cost of some GBP 188,000. The ineffectiveness of the Recall Petition and the problematic legalities surrounding it also imply that this sum was very much a waste of public funds. The Government of Sri Lanka lost more than GBP 100,000 [a lot more, according to some MPs and parties with insight in Colombo] – all public funds. To note that such high sums were spent on a lost cause, and on a fine example of neoconservative, misogynist, homophobic and anti-human rights political mediocrity ought to be a fine eyeopener to all critically-minded citizens and people’s representatives, in both Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland.