Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Second Report



1. Politics play an important part in Northern Ireland society. Northern Ireland's electorate is frequently asked to vote in elections. Since 1972 there has been on average one election affecting all of Northern Ireland in each year[1]. In addition to the frequency of elections there is a highly charged political atmosphere, which always has the potential to spill over into violence.[2] The last two years have seen major elections fought within Northern Ireland: in 1996 to the Forum; the General Election; and the local elections in May 1997. In the wake of these votes some political parties complained bitterly about what they saw as massive, organised fraud.

2. Allegations of electoral fraud have been a feature of Northern Ireland's political scene for many years. Mr Pat Bradley, the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland, voiced his concern in a series of Reports to the House in which he indicated the problems that have arisen since 1981.[3] Parliament acted on reports that vote stealing was widespread by including in the Representation of the People Act 1985 a special requirement on voters in Northern Ireland to produce specified evidence of identity when they ask for a ballot paper.

3. The political future of Northern Ireland is set to be put to the vote again soon - perhaps as early as May 1998. Depending on the outcome of the present "talks process" there may be further elections to bodies as yet not established. The need to ensure not only that the electoral system actually produces a correct reflection of the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland but that it should be perceived by all those affected by it as fair meant that we placed the issue of electoral malpractice by way of stealing votes high on our list of topics for investigation. We were not alone in regarding this subject as urgent and important.

4. In response to the expressed outrage at the perceived electoral abuse, the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue established a Committee on Electoral Reform which carried out an investigation over the summer and reported on 31 October 1997.

5. In late July, just after we announced our enquiry, the Secretary of State ordered a Review of the electoral practice in Northern Ireland in response to allegations of extensive personation[4] at polling booths in Northern Ireland at the elections on 30 May 1996, 1 May 1997 and 21 May 1997. The Review team was initially meant to report to her by the end of November.

Scope of the enquiry

6. Electoral malpractice can take a wide variety of forms. The scope of our enquiry concentrated on vote stealing: how it is done; how much of a problem it is; the means adopted to combat it; and any necessary changes in the rules to prevent it.

7. We did not specifically examine the administrative arrangements of the Chief Electoral Officer's office, despite expressed disquiet from some quarters. The recommendations which we set out below necessarily will result, if implemented, in a significant re-organisation of Mr Bradley's office. Great care should be taken with this.

Evidence gathered

8. The Committee took evidence from: Mr Pat Bradley, the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland; Mr P J Connolly, a former Deputy Electoral Officer; Mr Alastair Patterson, a serving Deputy Electoral Officer; Councillor Alex Attwood of the SDLP; and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In addition, the Committee received memoranda from political parties and others.[5] The Secretary of State kindly provided the committee with an edited copy of the departmental Interim Report commissioned by her in July 1997.[6]

9. During the enquiry the Committee received the able assistance of Dr Sydney Elliott of the Department of Politics, Queen's University, Belfast. We are very grateful to him for his help.

1  The only years since then when there have not been elections were 1976, 1978, 1988, 1990 and 1991. Back

2   See eg Q.200. Back

3   See Sessional Reports of the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland passim and Q.1. Back

4   See paragraph 25. Back

5   See list of memoranda. Back

6  See ev.p.82 ff. Back

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Prepared 23 March 1998