DCSIMG

Unionist dismay as election case falters

DEFEATED unionist unity candidate Rodney Connor has warned that "every person in Fermanagh and South Tyrone will continue to lose out" after Sinn Fein's Westminster election victory in the constituency was upheld in court yesterday.

Delivering judgment at the High Court in Belfast, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan pointed out that three extra votes remain unaccounted for at the count centre in Omagh, where Michelle Gildernew was elected.

Mr Connor brought his petition after losing out to Ms Gildernew by four votes after three recounts. He claimed there were breaches of the statutory rules and sought a scrutiny of the votes, a recount and a determination that Ms Gildernew was not duly elected.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said yesterday: "Even if those votes were introduced in breach of the rules and if they had all been counted in favour of the first respondent their exclusion would still have given the first respondent (Ms Gildernew) a majority of one vote and the result would not have been affected.

"We therefore determine that Michelle Gildernew was duly elected as Member of Parliament for the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone and shall certify our determination to the Speaker of the House of Commons accordingly."

Speaking to the News Letter after the ruling, Mr Connor said that while he was disappointed with the ruling, he hoped the case would prevent "further breaches of election laws".

"This is not just about me losing this legal challenge, this is about everyone in the entire constituency losing out, with no voice what-so-ever in Westminster, especially now at a time when so many cuts are being made across the UK and here in Northern Ireland," said Mr Connor.

"However, we feel vindicated in bringing this challenge, the court has spoken to the electoral office and hopefully steps will be taken to prevent anything like this happening again."

During a three-day hearing in Dungannon last month, former Chief Electoral Officer Douglas Bain gave evidence that the process had not been rushed.

He also defended his decision not to allow a fourth recount.

Although initially claimed that 36 extra votes appeared, this was reduced to three ballot boxes where an excess of one vote was identified in each.

Sir Declan, sitting with Mr Justice Gillen, was unable to reach a conclusion which would explain this discrepancy.

The judges held that instructions provided by the Chief Electoral Officer to Deputy Returning Officers resulted in an arguable breach of the rules.

However, they ruled that "the election was conducted so as to be substantially in accordance with the law as to elections".

During a three-day hearing in Dungannon last month, former Chief Electoral Officer Douglas Bain gave evidence that the process had not been rushed.

He also defended his decision not to allow a fourth recount.

Although initially claimed that 36 extra votes appeared, this was reduced to three ballot boxes where an excess of one vote was identified in each.

Sir Declan, sitting with Mr Justice Gillen, was unable to reach a conclusion which would explain this discrepancy.

The judges held that instructions provided by the Chief Electoral Officer to Deputy Returning Officers resulted in an arguable breach of the rules.

However, they ruled that "the election was conducted so as to be substantially in accordance with the law as to elections".

The Electoral Office said they were pleased with the judgement.

"However, we will be carefully considering what has been said today and will decide what action needs to be taken," a spokesperson said.

Outside the court Ms Gildernew called for a stop to unionist legal challenges in her constituency.

She said: "This is my third Westminster election and my second electoral court. This has to end.

"They have to listen to the democratic will of the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. They have to accept that we don't have a Protestant state for a Protestant people, that there should be a Catholic about the place and I can represent all of my constituents better than anybody else."

The Sinn Fein MP expressed anger at being left with a bill for defending the case, revealing that a similar challenge in 2001 cost the party 17,000.

"I felt all along that I should not have been named as first respondent. This was a case between Rodney Connor and the Electoral Office," she said.

Mr Connor, the former chief executive of Fermanagh District Council was put forward as a candidate for the Westminster election, after the DUP and Ulster Conservatives and Unionists agreed on running a joint unionist candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

 
 
 

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