You probably heard Claire Hanna on Talkback yesterday. She’s got a musical voice that’s laced with cheerfulness, and if you weren’t careful you could find yourself agreeing with her. But that would be a bad mistake. Because Claire wants any coming by-election in North Antrim to be about Brexit. Wrong, Claire. Wrong wrong wrong wrong.
There is one focus called for in this case and that is on the North Antrim DUP MP and why he should not continue to be an MP.
A quick reminder in case you’ve forgotten. In 2013 Ian Paisley Jr accepted two family holidays, all expenses paid, from the Sri Lankan government. He says they totted up to ‘around £50,000’. Several other estimations put it nearer £100,000. Either way, Paisley took the holidays and forgot/didn’t bother to tell the British parliament about them. The rules clearly said he must but he didn’t. What’s more, he wrote to the prime minister at the time, David Cameron, urging him to resist a UN resolution that there be an investigation into possible human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan government. In his letter, the DUP MP for North Antrim forgot/didn’t bother to tell his prime minister that he’d had a couple of top-drawer holidays (when did you last spend £25,000, let alone £50,000, on a family holiday?) at the expense of the Sri Lankan government.
The House of Commons has investigated his case and hsd now barred him from parliament until November. If 10% of his electorate call for it, a by-election must be held.
Now. What is this political story about? Money, money, money. Sound familiar? It should, because there’s a big investigation still going on into a scheme you may have heard of – the Renewable Heating Initiative (RHI). It involves Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP. Ian Paisley’s father was the founder of the DUP and Ian Jr is a senior figure in the party.
While the cash-for-ash investigation has yet to bubble to a climax (hello, Jonathan Bell), the Paisley lobby-for-holidays case is clear-cut and undisputed: the North Antrim MP got two massive holidays from a foreign government and then urged his PM to go aisy on said government about their human rights record. On TV two nights ago, astonishingly, Arlene Foster said her party would have to look into the Paisley affair, follow Party procedures and, well, these things take time, have to be fair to the man, yadda yadda boomadaisy. Like he hasn’t, after full and fair investigation, been found guilty already?
So here’s my question: if an elected representative can carry on – that is, stay in post or be re-elected if there’s a by-election – after such a blatant piece of lobby subterfuge, what’s the point? I mean, what is the bloody point? Are we all now in Trumpland, where our elected representatives can do whatever they want? And if found out, can apologise and carry on without a blush?
And speaking of big money: what is it about the DUP that financial stories are drawn to them like bluebottles to a dung heap? You’ll remember the NAMA scandal, when back in 2015 a Stormont finance committee heard allegations that Peter Robinson was one of the people who were to benefit from National Asset Management Agency sell-off. You’ll also remember the Red Sky affair in 2010, when that company was caught up in a scandal over financial irregularities and a BBC Spotlight programme alleged DUP involvement in the affair.
So Ian Paisley’s financial sleight-of-hand forms part, you might say, of a DUP tradition. Will the DUP expel him from the party? Or are they OK with this kind of thing, providing there’s an apology and the sinner, tears in his eyes, makes a speech about how much he loves his constituents?
Listen to me. Barry McElduff got booted out of Sinn Féin for balancing a loaf on his head. If Ian Paisley isn’t booted out of the DUP for lobbying on behalf of a government that slipped him two massively luxurious holidays, then the public will know once and for all at what level the DUP sets the bar of probity.
Meanwhile please, Claire, no more cheerful chirping about making any by-election a chance to field a an agreed anti-Brexit candidate. After all, your party has always rejected on principle the idea of an agreed candidate in places like Fermanagh-South Tyrone. Instead, focus on Ian Paisley, his party, and how they respond to the scandal of the holiday lolly. Or put more simply: follow the money.