Sinn Féin’s victory in Foyle was ‘theft of a seat’, parliament hears

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 8th June 2017 - 
Westminster General Election 2017
First ballott papers at the election count at Foyle Arena Derry for Foyle and East Londonderry.
Photo by Freddie Parkinson / Press Eye.
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 8th June 2017 - Westminster General Election 2017 First ballott papers at the election count at Foyle Arena Derry for Foyle and East Londonderry. Photo by Freddie Parkinson / Press Eye.

Sinn Féin’s narrow general election victory in Foyle this year has been described in parliament as “a clear case of electoral fraud and the theft of a constituency”.

DUP MP Gregory Campbell referred specifically to the use of proxy voting in his comments while speaking under parliamentary privilege during Cabinet Office questions in London on Wednesday.

The chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland, however, has said she “strongly refutes” any suggestion of the “theft of a constituency”.

The Foyle constituency was won by Sinn Féin in June by a margin of just 169 votes.

Its taking of the seat from the SDLP was an unexpected and historic victory for the republican party, coming in Foyle where the SDLP had won every Westminster vote since the constituency itself was created, back in 1983.

However, Mr Campbell raised the issue of proxy voting in Foyle through a question to Conservative MP Chris Skidmore, the minister for the constitution, at Westminster on Wednesday.

He asked: “Is the minister aware that at the general election in June, there was a 300% increase in proxy votes in the Foyle constituency, resulting in Sinn Féin winning the seat by 169 votes?”

The DUP MP added: “Many people are specifically saying that that was a clear case of electoral fraud and the theft of a constituency in this house.”

Afterwards, in a statement, Mr Campbell said proxy voting generally in Northern Ireland requires attention.

“Foyle was one of the closest contests but was not an isolated case,” he said.

“The pattern of proxy voting in Northern Ireland requires particular investigation.

“There is no apparent rational explanation as to why the number of proxy votes across Northern Ireland doubled between 2015 and 2017.”

Mr Campbell added: “The increase has not been uniform across constituencies however, with dramatic rises confined to certain areas.”

When invited to respond to Mr Campbell’s comments, a Sinn Féin spokesperson dismissed them as a “distraction”.

“Gregory Campbell’s comments are another blatant attempt to distract from the key issues of the RHI inquiry, Brexit, and the Dark Money scandal,” the party spokesperson said.

Concerns about the use of proxy votes in the election had been raised previously by, amongst others, the Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan and the former Foyle MLA Eamonn McCann.

Mr Durkan met with the chief electoral officer shortly after the election to share those concerns.

The chief electoral officer, Virginia McVea, told the News Letter that while she rejects Mr Campbell’s comments about the “theft” of a seat, she invited him to share his concerns.

Ms McVea said: “In terms of theft of a constituency, we would strongly refute that suggestion. The evidence to back such a claim hasn’t been presented to this office.

“I would invite Mr Campbell to bring any concerns he does have directly to me.”

She added: “To ensure public confidence the electoral office is considering its processes for future elections.”