Paisley may seek re-election to Westminster

Former DUP leader Ian Paisley has taken the Northern political establishment by surprise today by saying he might contest the next British general election.

Former DUP leader Ian Paisley has taken the Northern political establishment by surprise today by saying he might contest the next British general election.

Paisley was expected to retire as an MP and let his son, Ian Paisley Jnr, run in his place.

However, he now appears to have changed his mind as the DUP faces a major challenge from the breakaway Traditional Unionist Voice, which opposes power-sharing with Sinn Féin.

The new face of hard-line unionism in the North responded by saying that he is looking forward to going head-to-head with Paisley.

Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister was reacting to news that 83-year-old Mr Paisley might defend his North Antrim seat at the next general election in the face of a challenge from the new party.

Mr Paisley, who stepped down last year as First Minister, as DUP leader and as head of the Free Presbyterian Church, was expected to retire from Westminster, but the TUV has since announced hopes of taking his North Antrim seat.

There was speculation that Mr Allister, a former DUP member who split from the party over its decision to enter power-sharing government with Sinn Féin, would face Ian Paisley Jnr in North Antrim.

However, Paisley Snr has now told The House Magazine: "I think I would stand as an MP again. My wife is in the House of Lords, so I'll leave her to deal with the noble lordships."

Today Mr Allister signalled he would use a strong TUV performance in the European election, and a poor outing for the DUP to launch his future political plans.

"Regardless of who the DUP candidate in North Antrim is, I look forward, if spared, to contesting the seat vigorously," said the TUV leader.

"I do not believe in pre-guessing the electorate - the media and DUP have already learned to their cost that that can be a dangerous and embarrassing game to play."

The DUP suffered a dramatic collapse in support at the European election, with its share of the vote falling from 32% at the last European poll in 2004 to 18.2%.

The TUV, which campaigned against sharing power with republicans, failed to win a seat in the European election but seized 13.7% of the vote in the party's first major electoral outing.

In the aftermath of the result, Mr Allister said he would stand candidates against the DUP in future Westminster and Assembly elections.

At the time, the TUV leader also said he intended to fight in North Antrim, sparking a response from Ian Paisley, who said: "He is very welcome to come and get a hiding in North Antrim."

However, Mr Allister said he would look forward to the possible clash.

He said: "TUV does have two very strong branches in North Antrim and an army of very willing workers.

"We believe that our support in the constituency is strong and we will be fighting to win.

"While Ian Paisley may say that I would receive 'a hiding' in North Antrim, the European election showed that a very significant section of the DUP's former supporters in the constituency - and indeed across Northern Ireland - have abandoned them for the Traditional Unionism of TUV."

The DUP said the strength of the TUV vote in the European election was linked to a range of factors, including opposition from some unionists to sharing power with Sinn Féin.

But voter anger at the scandal over MPs' expenses at Westminster, and at the accumulated earnings of double-jobbing politicians, was also raised on the doorsteps during the election campaign.

This week DUP leader Peter Robinson announced a reshuffle of his ministerial team, removing most of the MPs serving in the Northern Ireland Executive.

DUP deputy leader and North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds left the post of Finance Minister, while East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell left the post of Culture Minister and Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson stepped down as Junior Minister.

Mr Robinson has said all DUP Westminster MPs who are also sitting in the Assembly must choose between the two.

However, he was criticised by his political opponents for not taking more radical action.

Despite announcing a reshuffle to tackle double-jobbing, Mr Robinson remains as an MP, Assembly member and minister, while East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson will be Finance Minister, an Assembly member and a Belfast city councillor.

The DUP is holding a private party meeting today at which it is expected to discuss the political fallout from the European poll and plot a way forward for the party.

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