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'Protest' polling station sidelined

Published 13/04/2015

Votes will be cast at two other polling stations in light of a previous flag protest
Votes will be cast at two other polling stations in light of a previous flag protest

A polling station in Northern Ireland that witnessed a Union flag protest at last year's European and council elections will not be used for the general election.

Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland Graham Shields said voters allocated to the Howard Memorial Primary School at Moygashel, Dungannon would now be reassigned to new polling stations.

Earlier this year the Electoral Office NI ruled out using the school for May's vote but it was effectively told to examine the issue again, after the Electoral Commission intervened and ruled that a proper consultation process had not been conducted.

With that process now complete, Mr Shields announced that the same decision had been reached second time round.

Last year a senior observer from the Electoral Commission described the atmosphere created by the loyalist flag protest as "tense and hostile".

He said some voters would have found the protest "intimidating and unpredictable".

A significant police presence, including officers in riot gear, had to be deployed.

Mr Shields said he had reasonable cause to conclude that some voters who wished to vote would have been deterred by the presence of the flag protesters, many of whom had their faces covered with scarves.

"It is my responsibility to ensure that all electors in Northern Ireland are able to exercise their right to vote in an environment free from intimidation or hostility," he said.

"Clearly what happened at Howard Memorial last year was unacceptable in a democratic society and could not be ignored.

"I have carefully considered all the representations made to me and feel that on balance the decision to move to different polling locations for the General Election vote is the right one".

Electors will be reassigned to new polling stations at Dungannon Leisure Centre and Roan St Patrick Primary School, Eglish.

DUP Assembly member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Lord Morrow branded the move discriminatory.

"I am totally appalled and disappointed by the decision of the Chief Electoral Office in relation to removing Moygashel polling station from Howard Primary school in Dungannon," he said.

"This decision flies in the face of the evidence and will potentially disenfranchise voters in that locality."

The politician said the decision would be appealed against.

"The fight goes on," he said.

Sinn Fein Fermanagh and South Tyrone general election candidate Michelle Gildernew welcomed the decision.

"The original decision to close the polling station in Moygashel was the right one," she said.

"This has been reiterated today following a review.

"It is clear that the presence of a large number of loyalist flag protesters outside the polling station deterred many from exercising their democratic right.

"It intimidated many, from across all sections of our community, from using the polling station.

"It could not in any sense be deemed proper and correct to allow this to happen again during an election. Voting should be free from any type of harassment and especially the sectarian harassment and threats that occurred on that day."

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