Political news

Electoral Office defends handling of Ian Paisley recall petition

Virginia McVea defended the Electoral Office's handling of the recall petition in North Antrim

THE CHIEF electoral officer has moved to assure signatories to the petition which could unseat Ian Paisley that their identities will remain secret.

Virginia McVea also refuted claims that people seeking to sign the first recall petition in UK parliamentary history were being intimidated. She said no complaints of intimidation had been received by her office.

Ms McVea's comments came as the petition which requires the signatures of 10 per cent of Mr Paisley's constituents to trigger a by-election entered its second week.

Venues in Ballymena, Ballycastle and Ballymoney are open until September 19 to allow people registered to vote in North Antrim the opportunity to sign the petition. Constituents can also sign by post, however, applications must be submitted by September 4.

Mr Paisley was suspended from the House of Commons for 30-sitting days last month for failing to register two luxury holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government.

He later lobbied on behalf of the south Asian island's regime by urging then prime minister David Cameron to resist calls for a UN investigation into human rights abuses.

North Antrim MLA Philip McGuigan yesterday claimed the Electoral Office's handling of the recall petition was "poor".

He repeated his criticism of the decision to open just three venues rather than the ten which the legislation enables.

The Sinn Féin representative said his party wasn't alone on voicing concerns about people feeling uncomfortable attending the designated venues for signing the petition.

He said the Electoral Office should open additional venues across the constituency arguing that "current arrangements are simply not good enough".

Mr McGuigan said he had been made aware of a number of incidents, including the removal and damage to signs, while one constituent had arrived "to find the door locked and the petition being moved to a less accessible room".

"This situation has been compounded by the lack of an effective public awareness campaign and the restrictive opening hours of the signing centres," he said.

"The people of the North Antrim have democratic rights with regard to the petition to remove their MP from office – the Electoral Office should be facilitating them in exercising that right and not putting obstacles in their way."

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann yesterday welcomed confirmation from Ms McVea that the electoral register with names of signatories marked will not be published after the petition closes.

He said a number of constituents had contacted him to raise concerns that they could be identified after signing the petition.

But Ms McVea defended the Electoral Office's handling of the petition, for which there is no precedent.

She said the service was "operating smoothly and efficiently" and that staff had responded immediately when concerns were raised.

"In relation to some people finding a room to be too far into the building in Ballymena, we have reverted to our original room near the front door, evidencing our attention to public need which will continue during the six week period," she said.

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