‘Grave concern’ over threat to close Derry’s electoral office

People pictured at strike outside of the Electoral Office in Derry in June.

People pictured at strike outside of the Electoral Office in Derry in June.

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Derry & Strabane Council has been warned that local democracy could be adversely impacted by proposals to close the Electoral Offices in Derry and elsewhere and centralise the service to Belfast.

The Council have now agreed to summon the Chief Electoral Officer to question him about the proposals, which would involve Councils taking over key functions around elections.

The decision was taken after NIPSA union official Dooley Harte addressed the Council’s Governance & Strategic Planning Committee at its October meeting in the Guildhall on Tuesday.

The Electoral Office locally prepares for and oversees Assembly, Westminster and European elections, Referendums, as well as dealing with electoral identification, voter registration and promoting voter participation, including in secondary schools across Derry.

In a presentation on the proposed closure of Regional Electoral Offices before the committee, Mr Harte detailed how management informed NIPSA about budgetary pressures and possible implications back in the summer of 2015, and how budgets had been slashed by 25% between 2010 and 2016.

The following January, he said, NIPSA were shown proposals which detailed a preferred option of centralisation to Belfast, but added that requests for financial information to justify the closure of regional electoral offices were denied.

Over 95% of NIPSA members balloted supported strike action and two separate days of industrial action were held in June this year.

“These aren’t mad, loony left-wingers keen on strike action whenever the opportunity arises,” Mr Harte said.

Mr Harte said there had been “significant” political support among politicians and a series of meetings had taken place.

He said that at present there were 49 people employed in the Electoral Office, 29 of them in Regional Offices, and many more temporary staff brought in during elections to work at poll stations and count centres.

“Our members are very much opposed to closing any regional offices both in terms of the impact on their own employment but also because of the impact on the local service.

“As far as we are concerned if those services are centralised to Belfast those services provided to secondary schools the young people to register won’t be provided.”

He said the Council needed to be “absolutely clear” what its role would be and where the funding would come from if there was to be a transfer of functions.

Mr Harte said it would be concerning to think Derry and Strabane ratepayers might be asked to pay for a service currently funded from Westminster.

“Ensuring this community has a proper electoral service is critical to our democracy. We are greatly concerned this decision was made right from the outset that they are going to Belfast.

“We are greatly concerned about how this has been handled, we think the Council should be concerned and we are asking you to become involved in the process.”

Sinn Fein Councillor Brian McMahon made two separate proposals to bring the Chief Electoral Officer before the Council and to formerly support the retention of the six regional electoral offices and oppose any dilution of services. Both were passed with unanimous backing.

Mr McMahon said that said the electoral office staff who work at the coal face “do excellent work”, including in getting people to register.

SDLP Councillor John Boyle said: “Here we are in 2016 worrying about disenfranchisement.

“If we did lose our Electoral Office it would be a grave concern to us,” he said.

Independent Councillor Darren O’Reilly questioned whether there was a possibility that Council could refuse to take on any electoral responsibilities.

Council Chief Executive John Kelpie, when asked by Councillors, confirmed that Derry & Strabane Council that the proposals, consultation and detail on the proposed changes have not been shared with council officials to date.

DUP Councillor Thomas Kerrigan said he fully backed the motion and, along with Independent Councillor Maurice Devenney, also praised the professionalism of local Electoral staff.

Independent Councillor Gary Donnelly also praised the “courteous and helpful” staff, and said the time was now right to show its appreciation by taking a stand in solidarity with them.