Londonderry community centre boss hits out as loyalist flags see it axed as polling site
The decision by the Electoral Office to drop a community centre as a polling station for May's Assembly elections has been described as "lame" and a "slur" on the good work done at the centre for both communities.
Gordon Moore, chairman of Newbuildings Community Centre near Londonderry, said he was shocked the Electoral Office took its decision because of complaints about loyalist flags around the centre on polling day last May during the general election.
The Electoral Office received a substantial number of complaints from voters and political parties who said the flags in the centre's car park were intimidating, and for this reason Newbuildings Primary School would be used for the Assembly election next month.
Mr Moore said that while the Electoral Office was entitled to use whatever building it wanted, it was wrong of it to suggest people were being intimidated coming into the community centre.
He said: "There were thousands of flags put up in the run-up to the marching season in Newbuildings. They were on the lampposts all along Victoria Road and Duncastle Road, so even if the polling station was the primary school people would have still gone past flags.
"I am unhappy that the Electoral Office took this decision using such a lame excuse without any consultation with ourselves, because it has damaged all the good cross-community work being done at the centre. Our centre is a neutral space that operates an open door policy to the whole community.
"We have always been this way and we don't want the Electoral Office's slur to undermine the good work being done by the centre."
Sinn Fein's Raymond McCartney disagreed and defended the decision taken by chief electoral officer Graham Shields not to use the building this time round. Mr McCartney said: "People should be able to cast their vote at polling stations free from fear and intimidation.
"There are clear rules governing posters and flags at polling stations and it is important these are adhered to.
"I know a number of voters raised concerns that they felt intimidated by the presence of flags at a polling station in Newbuildings at last year's Westminster election.
"Following these complaints that polling station has now been moved back to its original location, and I think that is the correct decision. It is important that people can exercise their democratic right to vote at polling stations free from fear and intimidation."
Mr Shields explained the reasoning behind his decision.
He said: "The reason was that loyalist flags were erected in the car park of the community centre.
"On polling day I received a number of complaints from people who were unhappy and felt intimidated when they went to vote by the presence of the flags.
"We feel it is a safer and a more neutral venue to go back to the school."
He said the Electoral Office carried out the required consultation about the move and received no objections.