Northern Ireland’s Remainers are conspiring to snatch a crushing defeat from the jaws of a slightly less humiliating one. With the Democratic Unionist MP Ian Paisley facing the possibility of a recall by-election after being suspended from the Commons for 30 days, talk among rival parties has turned to how he might be gotten rid of.
Sinn Féin, which finished second in his North Antrim seat in 2017, has vowed to unseat Paisley. The moderate nationalist SDLP, meanwhile, have suggested to other pro-EU parties that a single anti-Brexit candidate should challenge him.
Neither strategy, if actually pursued, will have the desired effect. There will only be one winner should the race be spun as a straight fight between Paisley and Sinn Féin and that is Paisley, who has a 20,000 majority over them for a reason.
The same applies to the fanciful notion of Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Greens and the Alliance agreeing an anti-Brexit pact: 63 per cent of voters in North Antrim backed Leave in 2016. It might make sense were Paisley the MP for a marginal seat where a majority of voters backed Remain, like Belfast South, but even there the parties did not broker a deal for the general election.
Both of those by-elections would be fought on Paisley’s terms, and won at a canter. Everyone, not least their advocates, knows this. The only way Paisley could lose is if the DUP – who have suspended him from the whip pending an internal investigation – did not allow him to run as their candidate. And even then, fighting on home turf in a constituency which has been represented by a man called Ian Paisley since 1970, one wouldn’t bet too much money on him losing.
But in turning the by-election into a question of green and orange and Leave and Remain, Paisley’s opponents arguably make that outcome less likely. The best thing they could do if they really want to see him beaten is shut up. The nature of politics means they won’t – and makes a defeat even harder to foresee.