Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

The man who's always ready for polling day

Chief Electoral Officer Douglas Bain, a former military man, has his 'troops' on standby for a General Election. Today he launches one of a whole series of his own projects at Stormont



Northern Ireland is actually leading the field in electoral law. It is the only part of the UK to have moved to individual registration

Should Prime Minister Gordon Brown go to the country sooner rather than later, Northern Ireland is next year facing the rare prospect of an election-free 12 months.

But Chief Electoral Officer Douglas Bain insists the potential 'gap' year will not leave him twiddling his thumbs.

"Elections only account for about 25% of my work," the former Prison Service director, who has just had his 58th birthday, insisted.

Among a series of priority projects - the first of which, Electoral Registration Awareness Week, launches today at Stormont - is a wholesale review of the province's polling stations and bedding down the whole process of continuous registration.

Even so, his office remains in a constant state of readiness, just in case Mr Brown should suddenly decide to call a snap General Election. Bain has just written to the almost 4,000 temporary volunteers who staff the polling stations to assess their availability.

If organising elections sounds like an operation requiring military precision, Bain's experience of more than 20 years service in the Territorial Army, serving mainly in the Royal Artillery, must come in handy.

Bain was born in the Scottish capital in September 1949 and, after education at Edinburgh Academy and the city's university, he was called to the Scottish Bar in 1973.

Four years later he joined the Office of the Solicitor to the Scottish Secretary of State (SoS), where he ran the court department handling almost all cases brought against the government in Scotland.

"Some were unusual, among them the inquiry into several deaths in blizzards in the far north of Scotland and trying - unsuccessfully - to persuade the court that a worker at a sewage farm had committed suicide by jumping into the sewage tank and had not met his death as a result of the Department's failure to provide a safe place of work," he remembers.

Among his more private passions is horses. He has owned his own steed for 25 years and competes regularly at shows.

"The excellent facilities available in Northern Ireland were one of the reasons I decided to stay here," he says, then adding: "One of the others was my wife, Jenny."

Mrs Bain comes from Enniskillen, and now teaches children with special needs at Longstone School, Dundonald.

Love blossomed at Millbridge Stables in Comber as Jenny helped Douglas when his horse had colic. They married in 1990.

Bain had been seconded to the Northern Ireland Office two years earlier, after becoming a Procurator Fiscal, working for four years in the Scottish equivalent of the Serious Fraud Office and obtaining convictions in almost all cases.

"The last major one was the investigation and prosecution or corruption at the Clyde Submarine Base at Faslane which resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of a number of company directors and civil servants," Bain has written.

From putting people in prison, Bain switched to being Director of Services in the Northern Ireland Prison Service, responsible for prison estate, policy development and a number of major projects.

He was also the point of contact between the Prison Service and the political representatives of the separated loyalist and dissident republican prisoners in Maghaberry.

He makes a wry observation on the similarities between his office now and the Prison Service. "Both are steeped in tradition and perhaps not that easy to move forward," he says.

"Northern Ireland is actually leading the field in electoral law. It is the only part of the United Kingdom to have moved to individual registration - it used to be the head of household - and to require the production of photographic identity," he said.

But Bain is also taking a long view ahead. Next year's registration awareness, again unique to Northern Ireland, may focus on ethnic minorities in the province. And he also wants to encourage more young people to register, perhaps through the incentive of an identity-style card.

"There has to be confidence in the election system, that is the important thing," he said.

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