Northern Ireland

Rodney Connor appeal: judge 'astounded votes not found'

The Lord Chief Justice has said he is astonished that six disputed general election ballot papers have not been set aside for the courts to scrutinise.

Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew retained Fermanagh-South Tyrone by a majority of four votes, following three recounts.

Defeated unionist unity candidate Rodney Connor claims to have two witnesses who saw six votes counted which should have been rejected.

Sir Declan Morgan said he thought the disputed papers should have been found.

Mr Connor is claiming there were breaches of the statutory rules and is seeking a scrutiny of the votes, a recount and a determination that Ms Gildernew was not duly elected.

'Wholly unidentifiable'

The victorious Sinn Fein candidate insists, however, that she was properly returned by the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone as their MP.

A total of 46,803 were cast, with a turnout of 68.9%.

A barrister for the count's returning officer told the review hearing at the High Court in Belfast: "For the first time there is a factual situation described in which it is alleged certain votes, wholly unidentifiable, ought to have been rejected."

Paul Maguire QC argued these were not going to be put before the court for any examination.

Mr Connor's lawyer said there was a "practical difficulty" in the six votes being among 47,000 admitted in the count.

Patrick Good said one witness, James Cooper, saw four votes which should have been rejected, while Mr Connor's election agent wife Liz had identified a further two similar votes.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, sitting with Mr Justice Gillen, said: "The court sees enormous difficulty if these votes are not identified."

He said that, if Mr Connor is right, the six disputed votes "make all the difference".

"Your evidence is likely to be that you have two witnesses who claim votes should have been rejected," he told the court.

"The deputy returning officer who examined them decided they shouldn't be rejected but should be admitted.

"The court is not going to be able to see the votes.

"I have to confess, for my own part, I'm astonished, even if it did require consideration of 47,000 votes, that some process wasn't put in place over the summer."

Sir Declan confirmed the three-day hearing was ready to proceed on Monday, and warned it would not be stopped for any discovery issues.

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