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Politicians united in anger over shambolic election count

By Lindsay Fergus, Noel McAdam and Liam Clarke

Anger was growing last night as Northern Ireland’s election counting system was branded a “disgrace”.

It took the first of 108 seats in the Assembly election 10 hours to declare, and by the end of counting last night just 35 seats had been revealed.

The farcical scene was in stark contrast to Scotland and Wales, who counted through Thursday night to reveal the make-up of their new assemblies.

Northern Ireland was also the last region to provide the average turnout for the UK-wide Alternative Vote (AV) referendum after counting was delayed by 35 minutes.

Chief electoral officer Graham Shields said the delay was ordered by the Electoral Commission because the verification of votes had not been completed in three constituencies.

University of Ulster academic Professor Deirdre Heenan said the hold-ups made Northern Ireland “a laughing stock”, while the DUP’s William Hay branded them a “disgrace”.

There is widespread anger from frustrated politicians about the shambolic situation as count centres were hit with a series of embarrassing blunders.

In the Seven Towers Leisure Centre, Ballymena, the North Antrim Assembly and referendum votes were mixed up. At Omagh Leisure Centre, where Fermanagh/South Tyrone and West Tyrone were being counted, some ballot papers had to be dried out with a hairdryer after getting wet, election staff also got locked out of the computer system and then a table stacked with voting papers collapsed.

And the list does not end there: at Lisneal College, Londonderry, the Foyle votes were almost heading for a recount only for the missing ballot papers to turn up, while a box of votes for the North Belfast constituency went missing, and in East Antrim a full recount was ordered.

To make matters worse, at least two count centres, Lagan Valley Leisureplex and Banbridge Leisure Centre, where counting was under way for four constituencies — Lagan Valley, South Down, Upper Bann and Newry and Armagh — decided to wrap up two hours early last night.

An angry Mr Hay said a radical examination of election organisation in Northern Ireland was necessary after the re-count was called in Foyle. He described the situation as a “disgrace”.

The DUP MLA — said to have topped the poll with around 7,000 votes — hit out: “As things stand we could still be here at midnight, whereas in England and Scotland they have finished the counting long ago. There has to be a look at this.”

Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey, who is seeking re-election in South Belfast, said: “It's now 7.30pm on Friday and it is really unacceptable that at this late stage in the day after the ballot box was closed that we still don't even have a figure for what the turnout was. People are quite rightly getting annoyed.”

The DUP’s Mervyn Storey, who was re-elected in North Antrim, said: “I can’t understand the delay. Questions have to be asked why it has taken so long.”

At the Fermanagh/South Tyrone count an exasperated outgoing Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster described the delays as “disgraceful”.

“I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to sit there for hours on end, particularly when in other parts of the UK votes have been counted and people now have results.”

It will be this evening or maybe Monday before all 108 new MLAs are elected.

If the counting slips beyond today that would mean a delay for the council elections, which are due to start counting on Monday.

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