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Strike action 'could disrupt EU referendum'

By Noel McAdam

Potential industrial action at election offices could upset voting in the European referendum, it has been warned.

Staff angry over plans to close regional electoral offices here are being balloted over strikes.

The ballot does not close until after May 5, meaning the Assembly election will be unaffected. But the vote in June 23 could be.

UUP peer Lord Empey called the closure plans "a mistake not worth making". He also warned the proposals could mean all candidates having to travel to Belfast to register in future.

"There is no use complaining about lower voter turnout and registration while at the same time retreating to Belfast as the only centre where an office is located," Mr Empey added.

"I am convinced that the ultimate plan is to try and hand over the responsibilities to local government to save the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) money.

"This is a foolish and short-sighted mistake, and a risk not worth taking."

Sir Reg also described the NIPSA union's decision to ballot members as understandable.

"Whether it will have any impact on the Assembly elections or the European referendum remains to be seen, but this crisis has been in the making for some time, and the Government has been asleep at the wheel," the UUP peer added.

NIPSA official Dooley Harte said: "This will not be impacting on the Assembly election. The ballot will not close until after May 5, and the decisions will be taken then. But it is quite likely that it could have an impact on the EU referendum.

"We are calling on the NIO to review its funding of the Electoral Office and on political representatives to stand up and protect the election services they rely upon.

"Regional electoral offices deal with voter registration, provision of electoral identity cards and organise our election services, as well as providing outreach in schools to increase voter registration with our young people. All these services will be centralised into Belfast."

He added that the Electoral Office had said the plans were forced upon it by reduced funding from the NIO, "with over 25% having been lost since 2010 and a further reduction of 17% proposed by 2020".

Regional electoral centres in Ballymena and Newtownards are to close later this year followed by offices in Banbridge, Londonderry, Newtownabbey and Omagh early next year.

NIPSA warned that the proposals would mean many members of staff losing their jobs and local services being withdrawn from rural areas.

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