Holiday puts MP back in spotlight

Jane Witherspoon

Reporter:

Jane Witherspoon

North Antrim MP Ian Paisley is once again facing scrutiny over new allegations that he, his wife and children received a complimentary luxury holiday to the Maldives.

The claims were outlined in a Spotlight programme which aired last week in which allegations were made that Mr Paisley and his family visited the Maldives courtesy of its government in October/November 2016.

The programme examined the purpose of the 2016 trip, and whether Mr Paisley should have declared it.

The situation came to light after a Spotlight investigator delved deeper into a tweet by Mr Paisley’s wife, Fiona which showed a picture of a beach at a luxurious resort at which the family stayed.

Mr Paisley had visited the Maldives in February 2016 with two other MPs from an All-Party Parliamentary Group.

At the time, the Maldives government, headed by President Abdulla Yameen, was being criticised by organisations including the United Nations and the Commonwealth for human rights abuses.

In the wake of his visit, Mr Paisley spoke out against plans for economic sanctions against the regime.

However, later that year Mr Paisley, who has been MP for North Antrim since 2010, traveled to the Maldives again for a holiday with his wife and two children, as per the evidence of Mrs Paisley’s tweet.

It is this trip that has him in the full glare of publicity once again due to the Spotlight investigation.

Evidence of the Maldives trip produced by the BBC show, included an image from the resort’s internal records which suggested that full board and transfers were provided complimentarily at the request of the Maldives government and facilitated by the resort owner, Hussain Hilmy, who himself is a former government minister.

On whether the trip should have been declared, an expert on Parliamentary rules, Mr Gavin Millar QC, said it should have.

He told the Spotlight programme: “If, as Spotlight's documentary evidence suggests, the benefit was requested by the government and facilitated by Mr Hilmy, (owner of the resort where the Paisley family stayed) Mr Paisley should not have accepted it.

“But having accepted it, he certainly should have registered it undoubtedly.

“There are very strict rules about lobbying and creating an interest for yourself that may be perceived as lobbying.

“The moment you know these facts, that are disclosed in this document, the perception is that this is a reward for him having advocated for the Maldives government.”

Decorum

Ian Paisley claimed however that he did seek advice over whether to declare his trip.

He said he spoke to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone during her investigation into his previous Sri Lanka holidays, which his failure to declare resulted in his recent suspension from the House of Commons for 30 sitting days.

He told the Spotlight programme that after the conversation he had satisfied himself he did not need to register the holiday.

However, when pressed further, the MP clarified that he had not spoken to the commissioner as he had claimed, but in fact had spoken to the parliamentary registrar who administers the register of members' interests.

The Guardian contacted the Parliamentary Commissioner and the Parliamentary Registrar for a comment, however both refused to comment on private discussions with an individual MP.

They instead directed the Guardian’s attention to the rules on the registration of Members’ financial interests.

These rules clearly state under the heading of ‘Selflessness’ that: “Holders of public office should take decisions solely in terms of the public interest.

“They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends.”

Under the heading of ‘Integrity’ it states: “Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might influence them in the performance of their official duties.”

Denial

Mr.. Paisley last week denied that the trip was connected with the government of the Maldives, but rather that the cost was covered partly by himself and partly by a friend, who he has not named.

He also told Spotlight he had evidence which, he said, "categorically disproves that the trip was connected to the government".

He said the holiday had not been arranged by the Embassy or paid for by the government of the Maldives.

Déjà vu

Mr. Paisley has just recently finished his 30 day suspension, the longest given to an MP, for failing to declare complimentary family holidays to Sri Lanka.

He told the House of Commons in July that he felt: “A deep personal embarrassment” over failing to declare his Sri Lankan trips and made the “profoundest of apologies."

A jubilant Ian Paisley told the Guardian in the immediate aftermath of the shortfall in the ‘petition of recall’ that ‘a smaller man than me would have crumbled’ under the pressure he had faced.

And he told the BBC that after avoiding a by-election by 444 votes, it was the public’s way of saying: “We are keeping you big fella, we like you” and that it was “a miracle.”

He was also adamant that there were no other potentially embarassing issues which could impinge his role.

He said: “No. Nothing at all. I mean that was a genuine mistake on my part, I made a mistake and I apologised for it and I was punished for it."

The matter will now be referred back to the Parliamentary Standards Commission, where the allegations will be further scrutinised.

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