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The Bill deals with electoral fraud, so the objective should be to introduce measures to curb electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that fraud exists, nor about some of the ways in which it is perpetrated.
Toward the end of Committee stage, figures were given on the abnormally high—in relation to other constituencies—number of absent votes cast in certain constituencies in Northern Ireland. There is no doubt, too, that in those constituencies—I have in mind Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Mid–Ulster and West Tyrone—a significant proportion of the absent votes cast are fraudulent. It is likely that the fraudulent votes in those three constituencies are sufficient to account for the results, and that if we had honest voting and honest elections in Northern Ireland, fewer Sinn Fein Members would be returned to serve here—although, of course, they do not serve here.
I am sure that if there had been an honest election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Sinn Fein would not have won, and that the person who ought to be and is the true Member of Parliament for that constituency—my colleague Mr. Cooper, who fell victim to the fraud of Sinn Fein, which was assisted by the Democratic Unionist party's choosing to run a candidate in that constituency—would be here tonight.
On Second Reading, my hon. Friend David Burnside mentioned the election petition that was then outstanding in respect of that case. Of course, the matter could not be pursued because the case was sub judice. Since then, the election court has made its decision, and I want to share with the House just a few phrases that it used about the conduct of the election and of Sinn Fein in that constituency. The judge referred to "extremely reprehensible" incidents. He said that
"nothing can excuse the scenes of threatening intimidation which took place . . . Such behaviour"— meaning that of Sinn Fein—
"is the negation of a parliamentary democracy."
He then referred to the disturbance in St. Martin's school, Garrison, a polling station where votes were cast well after 10 o'clock. The court said that the disturbance was
"serious and intolerable, but it was an isolated incident".
That last phrase was accurate in terms of the evidence given to the court, but it is not true. It was not an isolated incident.
After the election petition was lodged within 21 days, as it had to be, in the first week of August, there was reliable and credible information that voting had continued at the polling station at St. Joseph's primary school, Ederney, for a period of approximately 10 minutes and that one of the police personnel present was prepared to appear in court and confirm it. However, because that information was not available earlier, it could not be included in the election petition, and consequently it could not be presented to the court. There is every reason to believe that if that evidence had been given to the court, the result of the petition would have been different.
I referred to that incident to bring out two simple points. First, the rules about election petitions inhibit the giving of evidence. Evidence could not be given in that case because the rules were unduly restrictive. Secondly, and more importantly, the information that became available after the petition was made should have been available beforehand; it was known to the electoral office, but was not conveyed to anyone. We are considering a Bill on electoral fraud that tries to strengthen the law. The primary responsibility of the electoral office in Northern Ireland ought to be to ensure that the system operates properly and fairly but, disturbingly, when we tried to deal with clear misconduct in the election, our experience was that it was not concerned with bringing out the truth or exposing wrongdoing. It was more concerned with trying to show that everything had been okay and that nothing had really happened. Indeed, its attitude was one of trying to cover up the bad behaviour of Sinn Fein and breaches of electoral law.
Will the Minister reflect on that? If he likes, we can give him more detail about what happened. Will he consider carefully what measures can be introduced in the Bill to ensure that the electoral office carries out its duties properly and sees its first duty as ensuring that the law is observed? If that means ensuring that information is put into the public domain that assists the making of a petition, the office should do so and not try to cover up matters, which was the approach taken in this case.
There is an opportunity in another place to strengthen the Bill further. The Minister congratulated himself on the minimal changes that have been made, but he should try to consult the parties properly, listen to what we have to say and introduce proposals that ensure that electoral law is observed properly and that we get honest results. That would be a significant achievement, and the Minister could then congratulate himself.