ANALYSIS DEMOCRACY IN ULSTER: Farewell to the Old Irish Custom of Voting Early, and Often ; in Northern Ireland, Tough New Registration Measures Have Wiped out 130,000 `Voters'. but Is This a Blow for or against Democracy?
David McKittrick Ireland Correpondent, The Independent (London, England)
PERSONATION, OR vote-stealing, has long been an integral part of the political processes in Northern Ireland, with the slogan of "vote early and vote often" a traditional one at election times. Its existence was no secret. My grandmother's parlour, one election day in the Sixties, was filled with hats and coats to give personators a change of clothing for their numerous return visits to the polling stations.
Leading politicians would cheerfully talk about the vote- stealing exploits of their supporters, not just admitting the practice but bragging about it.
One politician, now a venerated peer, recalled the protocol as: "You didn't take the other side's votes. You only did your own side. It was for somebody who was maybe sick, people who would be voting for you anyway."
In other words, in the old days it was considered bad form for a Unionist personator to steal a nationalist vote; what he did was to vote on behalf of Unionist electors unable or too apathetic to vote themselves.
Vote-stealing was hardly regarded as a crime. Regulations were lax and the whole thing had the sanction of tradition, if not of the law. It tended to be viewed as an extension of the old Unionist system which included much gerrymandering and manipulation of boundaries.
Although the existence of vote-stealing was undeniable, its scale was always in doubt, and there were few cases where it was claimed to be crucial in election results.
But the entry of Sinn Fein to the political arena in the early Eighties shattered all the old patterns. The republicans, according to other parties, simply stole every vote they could get their hands on. In a 1982 poll, more than 700 people arrived at polling stations to find their vote had already been cast. The following year there were almost 1,000 such cases, and 149 arrests of alleged personators.
The Conservative government of the day claimed that up to 20 per cent of Sinn Fein's votes were obtained by electoral abuse. The laws were tightened, with voters required to produce medical cards or other identification. This led to the establishment of a thriving cottage industry in the production of fake medical cards, showing that the tighter laws posed no insuperable difficulty to determined fraudsters.
There were also suspicions centring on the unusually large numbers of postal votes. One man asked for a postal vote because he was house-bound. In another election he again applied, but this time said he was a long- distance lorry driver.
The Social Democratic and Labour Party, Sinn Fein's principal competitor for the nationalist vote, has continued to claim that the republicans engage in organised vote-stealing. This allegation is strongly denied by Sinn Fein, and many feel the heyday of vote- stealing has passed. For one thing, the republican vote has soared so steeply over the past decade that it could not be all due to personation. The widespread view is that Sinn Fein has developed such a professional political machine - arguably the most efficient of any party - that it has little need to resort to illegality.
Yet the Electoral Fraud Act, which came into force this year, introduced a battery of new measures. In place of the household registration form used elsewhere in the UK, adults in Northern Ireland had to fill in individual forms. On these, …
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Publication information: Article title: ANALYSIS DEMOCRACY IN ULSTER: Farewell to the Old Irish Custom of Voting Early, and Often ; in Northern Ireland, Tough New Registration Measures Have Wiped out 130,000 `Voters'. but Is This a Blow for or against Democracy?. Contributors: David McKittrick Ireland Correpondent - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: November 29, 2002. Page number: 19. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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