Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein accused of using children for political gain in school letter row

By Adrian Rutherford and Claire O'Boyle

Lord Morrow has complained to the Electoral Commission after Michelle Gildernew sent a letter home with schoolchildren during the election campaign.

The DUP Assembly candidate for Fermanagh-South Tyrone accused his Sinn Fein rival of using children for political gain, claiming it was "flagrant exploitation".

Ms Gildernew sent a letter to the principal at Derrylatinee St Francis Primary School, Co Tyrone, on February 14, explaining she would be grateful if it was sent home with "every family".

Headteacher Mary McNeice distributed the letter, sparking fury among parents - one of whom has already gone to solicitors over the incident.

Ms Gildernew told a local newspaper she would "offer no apologies" for issuing the message on Sinn Fein-headed notepaper, explaining she was bound by time constraints in her campaign to secure improved broadband for the area.

Lord Morrow claimed: "This is not only exploitation of children for political purposes, it is to abuse the United Nations Convention on the Rights and Protections of the Child, as defined in Article 36.

"I utterly reject Ms Gildernew's explanation that she was time-bound by this correspondence.

"There was nothing to prevent her waiting one week to disclose her information or, indeed, issue a Press release when all sections of the community could have been informed and not just her selected network. To use the school and pupils is nothing sort of disgraceful. This has brought electioneering to a new low."

Lord Morrow said he had been contacted by several parents who were upset and disappointed.

He added: "She (Ms Gildernew) has abandoned integrity by abusing the rights of children, and therefore sacrificed respect in procedures designed to protect children from exploitation for political gain.

"There are serious questions to be answered and I have reported this matter to the Electoral Commission, the Education Authority and CCMS (Council for Catholic Maintained Schools).

"Ms Gildernew may feel she has nothing to apologise for, however, her behaviour will leave many astounded that she would stoop to such actions. An apology and acknowledgement of wrongdoing would be most appropriate in the particular instance."

Ulster Unionist candidate Rosemary Barton added: "I think it is beyond the pale that Sinn Fein should have been allowed to engage in a cheap political stunt in a seat of learning in the mouth of an election.

"However, the parents of these children will be able to see right through it for what it is. It is desperation on Sinn Fein's part and people should not pay any heed to their promises just days out from an election."

A Sinn Fein spokesperson said: "Michelle Gildernew has been working for some time on achieving better broadband speeds for the local community, including the local school.

"She sent the letter to the school and she said she would grateful if it could send the letter home to see if they were interested in applying to a Community Fibre Partnership Scheme.

"The current levels of broadband provision in the area are insufficient and, as such, it is affecting economic development.

"Maurice Morrow might better use his time doing real work like addressing the issue of broadband in rural communities."

The CCMS and the Electoral Commission said they had not yet received correspondence from Lord Morrow.

The Education Authority did not respond to a request for comment last night.

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