Northern Ireland

Howard Primary School: Decision to drop NI polling station upheld

Loyalists protested outside Howard Primary School during last year's elections
Image caption Loyalists protested outside Howard Primary School during last year's elections

Northern Ireland's chief electoral officer has upheld his decision to stop using a school as a polling station following a loyalist protest.

Graham Shields first dropped Howard Primary School in Moygashel, County Tyrone, as a voting station in January.

It followed loyalist intimidation of Sinn Féin workers at the station during last May's EU and council elections.

After a row over how the public were consulted, Mr Shields reviewed his decision to no longer use the school.

The decision has now been reaffirmed.

Mr Shields ruled that residents due to cast their ballot in Moygashel in next month's general election will instead vote at Dungannon Leisure Centre or Roan St Patrick's Primary School in Eglish, depending on their address.

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Media captionHoward Primary School in Moygashel, County Tyrone will no longer be used as a polling station over fears loyalist protesters could deter voters

During last year's elections, a group of up to 40 loyalists held a union flag protest outside Howard Primary School.

Observers from the Electoral Commission were at the school last year and raised concerns about what they described as a hostile environment.

In a detailed ruling on Monday, the chief electoral officer outlined how he had been informed that Sinn Féin election workers were allegedly threatened by a man with a knife.

It went on to say an individual was subsequently convicted of causing criminal damage and the possession of a blade or point in a public place.

Sinn Féin posters were cut down on the morning of last year's vote and some of the loyalist protesters ran onto the school grounds.

Four votes

They were removed by police, who deployed Tactical Support Group (TSG) officers to the scene.

In his ruling, Mr Shields said he had reasonable cause to conclude that some voters would be "deterred by the presence of a significant number of protesters, many of who had their faces covered with scarves, and TSG officers".

The polling station is in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency which was the UK's most tightly fought Westminster seat in 2010.

Sinn Féin held on to the seat by four votes, which was reduced to a majority of one after recounts and a court case.

Dungannon Leisure Centre is about about a mile and a half away from Howard Primary School.

Lord Morrow, of the DUP, has challenged the version of events contained in Mr Shield's report.

He said the ruling was "provocative".

"The people of Moygashel are saying 'why should we be penalised by the actions of some'?" he said.

"It never happens anywhere else. It has never happened in history, so therefore it's an unreasonable step to take. The sitting MP here is sitting on a majority of four votes, so therefore it has the potential to change the result of an election."

He said they would be looking at all options to "ensure that the people of Moygashel get fair and equal treatment and they are not going to be made second class citizens when it comes to casting their vote".

However, Sean Lynch of Sinn Féin said he disagreed with Lord Morrow.

"The original decision to close the polling station in Moygashel was the right one and this was upheld," he said.

"This was a crowd of loyalists, flag-waving protestors that had intimidated people from going in to vote on that night, last year on the council and European elections.

"This was a protest that was intimidatory, was hostile and they prevented people from going in to vote."

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