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Impartiality at risk if Electoral Office powers are devolved, union fears

Published 26/04/2016

The Electoral Office is gearing up for local elections and the EU referendum
The Electoral Office is gearing up for local elections and the EU referendum

The impartiality of electoral officers in Northern Ireland could be threatened if responsibility for running elections shifts from central to local government, a trade unionist alleged.

The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has responsibility for the Electoral Office, which is gearing up for Assembly elections and the European referendum later this summer.

Ulster Unionist Sir Reg Empey claimed the Government could devolve power over the public body to help save a relatively small amount of money while threatening its independence. However, other sources suggested it was far too early to raise such a concern.

Official for trade union NIPSA, Dooley Harte said: "Councillors sit on local councils, they are the board for the council, they work closely with the chief executives.

"I am not suggesting that there would be deliberate pressure or influence placed but there is the potential for that impartiality to be lost if electoral functions move to councils.

"I don't want to overstate that but it is certainly a concern."

If responsibility did transfer to local government some funding would be likely to go with that. NIPSA questioned whether that would be adequate.

The union is balloting its members over industrial action over separate plans to close six regional electoral offices.

Sir Reg said running elections cost around £2-2.7 million a year, a relatively small sum compared to the rest of the NIO budget.

"If it works don't fix it. It is working, it is accepted, there is no argument. I don't believe the direction of travel is the right one."

He said he was worried the plan was ultimately to save the NIO money.

"I think there is a genuine acceptance of the independence of the Electoral Office.

"My anxiety would be that if you get a tricky Westminster election and that count is conducted by local government officers they may be more subject to huge political pressure on key decisions in the middle of a Westminster count.

"You would have an independent body that has connections to the politicians controlling the local council.

"They would be working for those people on a day-to-day basis and may take a decision that is hugely politically damaging to their own masters."

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