Outrage over polling station closure due to ‘loyalist intimidation’

Howard Primary School
Howard Primary School

Outrage had been voiced by unionists over the decision to shut down a polling station because of alleged loyalist intimidation.

Howard primary school in the Moygashel area of Co Tyrone is no longer to be used by voters until at least 2019, after demonstrators converged on it during polling day last year.

Lord Morrow

Lord Morrow

The polling station is in an exceptionally tightly-fought electoral area; the last General Election saw Sinn Fein hold the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat by a mere four votes, just ahead of unionist candidate Rodney Connor.

The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland said that it had made the decision to help voters cast their ballots “in a peaceful and safe environment” in the wake of the protest at last year’s council and Euro election.

Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew MP hailed the decision as a “victory for common sense” – but both the DUP and UUP rounded on the move.

Tom Elliott accused the Electoral Office of simply swallowing Sinn Fein spin.

He also said it appeared there were double standards at play, claiming there had been “no action” from the Electoral Office over past republican irregularities in the border village of Garrison.

The DUP’s Lord Morrow said the closure “will ultimately disenfranchise the people of Moygashel” – a largely unionist area.

In a statement, chief electoral officer Graham Shields said: “It is regrettable that electors from the Moygashel and Coolhill wards will be inconvenienced by having to travel further to cast their vote on polling day.

“However, 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.

“I believe this change of venue is necessary to help achieve that objective, particularly in light of the concerns expressed following the elections in 2014.”

According to the 2011 Census Moygashel ward had around 2,189 residents, of which about 632 (about 29 per cent) were Catholic or from Catholic backgrounds.

By comparison 1,463 (about 67 per cent) were Protestants, “other Christians”, or came from such backgrounds.

In Coolhill there were 2,716 residents, and the same measurement shows 1,121 (about 41 per cent) were Catholic, while 1,405 (about 52 per cent) were Protestant/other Christian.

Voters for these two neighbouring wards will now use Dungannon Leisure Centre instead, roughly a mile-and-a-half from the school.

Around the time of the incident last year, the Ulster Herald carried a picture of a raft of Union Flag-bearing protestors on polling day and reported that Ms Gildernew had vowed to press for the venue not to be used again.

Asked what had taken place that day, the PSNI said: “Police can confirm that there was a protest that lasted just over an hour in the Moygashel area on the evening of Thursday May 22. There were no arrests made at this protest.”

The Electoral Commission (which monitors the conduct of votes) told the News Letter its observers had noted “a heavy police presence and that the atmosphere was tense”.

Lord Morrow, DUP MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, said: “Having worked so hard to encourage more people to register to vote in this area, it is utterly ridiculous that their local polling station is now being taken away.”

Tom Elliott, UUP MLA for the same region, said: “Michelle Gildernew is calling it a victory. Does she think it will discourage voter turnout in one of the most unionist wards West of the Bann?”

He also pointed to an incident at St Martin’s Primary School, Garrison, during the 2001 General Election.

The polling station was kept open beyond the 10pm deadline, and in a judgement reviewing the incident the then-Lord Chief Justice found that “scenes of threatening intimidation” had taken place.

These had been “brought into being by supporters of the candidate who was eventually successful” – that is, Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew MP.

However, the court did not find that the incident had been serious enough to change the outcome of the vote.

Ms Gildernew won the seat with 53 more votes than the UUP.

When the concerns of unionists were put to him, chief electoral officer Mr Shields said: “I absolutely refute any suggestion that the process of completing the new polling scheme has in any way been inappropriately influenced by any individual or political party.”

He added that the new voting places had been put out to a 12-week public consultation, ending in December.

During this, he said “submissions were received from a number of individuals expressing concern about voters feeling intimidated by the presence of the protesters on polling day and therefore not entering the school to vote”.