Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Poll delivers a resounding no for shabby organisation

Northern Ireland Assembly election May 2011: A delay at the counts in the King's Hall, Belfast

This is the space where we hoped to give you a full analysis of Northern Ireland's election results.

Some general trends are apparent. For instance, a consolidation of the position of the two bigger parties, but the detail is missing because of the failure of the electoral office to make progress on the count. At close of polling last night only 35 out of 108 seats were filled.

As yesterday evening wore on a variety of excuses came, some of them sounding like a bad Irish joke or a scene from Father Ted.

Ballots in Fermanagh and South Tyrone had been soaked by rain on the way to the count centre and manually restored to legibility using hairdryers. Then a table had collapsed spilling votes on the floor.

In Foyle postal votes had been lost and then found again. Northern Ireland was made a laughing stock of across the UK, where the Scottish and Welsh Assembly counts were finished hours earlier.

Through it all Graham Shields, the chief electoral officer, batted off criticism.

“Everyone knows usually an Assembly count can last for two days. This is no different. We are still in the first day of a two-day count,” Mr Shields said last night with only a handful of results in, implying that everything was going more or less to plan.

Yet just a day earlier he had been confidently predicting that most first counts would be in by early evening, and that some counts like West Belfast might well be completed.

Yesterday, though, he presented this as an impossible task.

“I had 55 full-time staff for all of the election across the constituencies in Northern Ireland. Most of the staff who are engaged here today are members of the public who came in to help us in the interests of democracy in Northern Ireland,” he said.

However, the staff he referred to were paid for their services, and had been on training courses.

The electoral office had decided not to count overnight and, to make matters worse, some counts like Strangford and South Down were ended around 9pm instead of continuing until 11pm as planned.

“People who are being critical of the amount of time taken here today would, I dare say, be much more critical if the results that were coming out were inaccurate or were not right,” he said.

“This exercise is about accuracy, it is not about speed, it is about getting the thing right.”

Yet last night’s fiasco cannot be described as a quality operation.

To put it at its most basic, there is room for doubt about the security of ballots that had been exposed to the elements, tossed to the ground by collapsing furniture or, lost and then found again.

“I do what I am required to do by law and the law has stated that there would be three elections. I am administering them and adhering to my responsibilities under the law, but this is a complicated process and people just have to accept that. That is just how it is. We will take as long as it takes to get the thing right and that is what we are doing,” he stated, excusing the leisurely pace.

Despite this explanation, his office’s performance elicited a vote of no confidence from victorious candidates.

Willie Hay, the speaker of the last Assembly who was elected on the first count in Foyle, described it as “a disgrace”.

John O’Dowd, who himself topped the poll for Sinn Fein in Upper Bann, said that the story of the election so far was the failure of the electoral office to organise the poll properly.

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