A controversial decision to close a polling station in Co Tyrone is a “breach of human rights” that must be overturned, the area’s DUP MLAs have said.
Lord Morrow and Arlene Foster have hand-delivered what they described as “a first batch” of 640 letters from Moygashel residents – objecting to the closure of a local school as a voting centre – to the Electoral Office (EONI) in Belfast.
In January this year EONI removed Howard Primary from the list of polling stations in response to the appearance of loyalist flag protestors on election day in 2014.
The school is in the UK’s most closely contested constituency, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where even a handful of lost votes could be crucial to the outcome of the Westminster general election.
Sitting MP Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Fein won the seat by a mere four votes from agreed unionist candidate Rodney Connor in 2010.
Announcing his decision, chief electoral officer Graham Shields said: “My priority is to ensure that all voters, regardless of their background, have the opportunity to exercise their democratic right to vote in a peaceful and safe environment.”
His decison has angered unionists who claim it is disproportionate to concerns of nationalist voters.
Lord Morrow said: “The chief electoral officer made the erroneous decision to close Moygashel polling station without adhering to required procedures and in absence of adequate consultation.
“During discussions with me following his announcement, he did not once indicate the process available to have his decision reviewed. Instead he was adamant he had the power to make the decision, was standing by it and would not be persuaded otherwise. I regard this non-disclosure as a breach of procedure.”
The DUP peer said the mechanism for requesting a review only became apparent during correspondence with the local council.
“This was never disclosed to me or anyone else involved in the campaign against the closure, prior to the response to the council. That response indicated a quantity of letters against the decision, if presented to the Electoral Office, could trigger a review. This whole episode has been exposed as a spiteful, vengeful, politically orchestrated move and shame on the chief electoral officer for dancing to a non-democratic, sectarian agenda.”
UUP MLA Tom Elliott has also lodged an appeal claiming Sinn Fein “appear to have deliberately exaggerated” the level of concern.
The action taken by the EONI in Moygashel contrasts sharply with the way alleged irregularities at a Garrison polling station were dealt with in 2001, some unionists have said.
During the Westminster election that year there were reports of a “complete breakdown” of order – when the presiding officer was prevented from closing at the stipulated 10pm after being confronted by Sinn Fein representatives.
Defeated Ulster Unionist candidate James Cooper, who lost out to Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Fein by just 53 votes, unsuccessfully challenged the result in a court action.