Belfast Telegraph

Unionists vow to fight for poll station axed over flag protest

By Adrian Rutherford

Unionists have pledged to challenge a decision to drop a Co Tyrone polling station targeted by loyalist protesters.

Howard Memorial Primary School in Dungannon will not be used at next month's general election.

Northern Ireland's chief electoral officer said the decision was taken after an "intimidating" flag protest at the venue during last year's European and local elections.

Graham Shields also confirmed voters would be allocated to two other polling stations.

Sinn Fein has supported the decision, but unionists have vowed to fight. DUP MLA Maurice Morrow said: "I can assure the chief electoral officer that the fight goes on and an appeal is being lodged."

Howard Memorial has been used as a polling station in a number of recent elections, but earlier this year, the Electoral Office ruled out using it for next month's vote in the wake of the protest.

However, the body was effectively told to re-examine the issue after the Electoral Commission intervened and ruled a proper consultation had not been conducted.

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

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

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

Affected voters will now be reassigned to new polling stations at Dungannon Leisure Centre and Roan St Patrick Primary School in Eglish.

Ulster Unionist candidate Tom Elliott said the matter had been mishandled from the outset. "I have no confidence whatsoever regarding how this decision was taken," he added.

However, Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew, who won the Fermanagh/South Tyrone seat by four votes in 2010, backed the decision.

"Voting should be free from any type of harassment and especially the sectarian harassment and threats that occurred that day," she said.

Belfast Telegraph

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