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Delivering democracy at the height of the Troubles: Former NI vote chief Pat Bradley publishes tell-all memoir


Challenges: Former chief electoral officer Pat Bradley. Credit: Tom Heaney/NW Press pics.

Challenges: Former chief electoral officer Pat Bradley. Credit: Tom Heaney/NW Press pics.

Challenges: Former chief electoral officer Pat Bradley. Credit: Tom Heaney/NW Press pics.

A new memoir from Northern Ireland’s former election chief recalls the challenges of delivering democracy during the darkest days of the Troubles.

In Ballots, Bombs and Bullets, Pat Bradley writes of the moment that he announced the result of the Good Friday Agreement referendum in 1998 and the election of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in 1981.

He was appointed deputy electoral officer in 1974, starting out in Londonderry, his hometown.

Pat found himself thrown in at the deep end with little experience and with a backdrop of paramilitary opposition to the electoral process.

The 1974 general election was the first of many polls he would oversee in a career that saw him become a respected expert around the world.

He was appointed chief electoral officer in 1980 and was based in Belfast when Bobby Sands was elected.

“At that time, Sinn Fein and the IRA were very anti-system, but they had decided to publicise the hunger strike by getting Bobby Sands to stand for election,” Mr Bradley said.

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With Sinn Fein narrowly beating the UUP to win the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat, Mr Bradley said it marked a turning point for the party.

“It swung them around from being totally militaristic to having the inclusion of elections, a way to publicise their objectives,” he added.

“That was a very important swing because if that hadn’t happened, the Provos would never have moved towards elections and God knows what would have happened.”

Mr Bradley’s most famous moment came in 1998, when he announced the result of the Good Friday Agreement referendum at the King’s Hall in Belfast.

He described it as the peak of his career, despite having worked in elections around the world.

“What actually happened is that I ran the referendum as an independent officer, and the parties did not have the control they normally have over other elections,” Mr Bradley said.

“Despite that, they accepted I had run the referendum fairly and accurately.

“When I made the announcement, I realised it was a historic moment because what you found was that on the nationalist side you had a majority.

“Within the unionist side, you had a divide. The parties didn’t have a united front, which weakened their position.

“When I announced the result to the public — to the world, in fact — and nobody raised a single query, that was something that I was very proud of.”

His later career saw his expertise sought after by international organisations such as the UN and the EU in their attempts to introduce or enhance democracy in areas of conflict.

Before retiring as chief electoral officer in 2000, he worked as a technical adviser in more than 30 countries, including Russia, Sierra Leone, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

With the Assembly in turmoil yet again after the latest election, Mr Bradley said his experience had taught him that countries with much greater problems had found a way forward.

“The problems in Northern Ireland are small and insignificant in comparison to other countries in which I’ve worked, like Kosovo and Bosnia Herzegovina,” he added.

“I say to myself, ‘It’s about time in Northern Ireland that we caught ourselves on’. What I wanted to do with the book was to show that countries that are worse off in relationships to each other survived and got going properly.

“Why can’t we do the same in Belfast, Derry and Northern Ireland as a whole?

“My favourite expression for the present times is that it’s time we started building bridges and stop digging trenches.”

Ballots, Bombs and Bullets can be bought online through www.etsy.com. It is also available in Belfast from the No Alibis bookshop on Botanic Avenue, and in Derry at Little Acorns Bookstore on Foyle Street and Foyle Books in Craft Village

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