Vote fraud crackdown in Ulster

VOTERS should be given ID "swipe cards" before being allowed to vote to stop widespread fraud at the polls in Northern Ireland, an all-party group of MPs said last night.

Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, is expected to take action on the measures to curb fraud, but they will not be in place in time for the referendum due to be held on the peace process in May.

The warning about the possibility of polls being rigged by fraud came as Sinn Fein returned to the negotiating table and the two governments prepared to move the agenda forward today.

The threat posed by electoral fraud to the reliability of polls in Ulster was raised by the Commons select committee on Northern Ireland, which said widespread vote-stealing was unacceptable but there was a poor record of successful prosecutions.

The former Northern Ireland MP William McCrae, a member of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, yesterday claimed vote stealing may have cost him his seat in Mid-Ulster at the last election, when it was won by the Sinn Fein chief negotiator, Martin McGuiness with a majority of 1,883.

The committee's findings will cause concern within the Government about ways of combating fraud when the referendums go ahead.

The introduction of electronic swipe cards was proposed by Pat Bradley, the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland, who said attempts to stop fraud by requiring voters to show medical cards had failed, because the cards had been forged.

He identified at least three different types of voting fraud - personation, in which a voter impersonates someone eligible to vote; multiple voting, in which the voter may be registered to vote in more than one place; and multiple registration, when the voter gives false addresses. Northern Ireland polls also have to contend with intimidation of the voters.

Absent voting - allowing postal votes - rose by 38 per cent in Mid-Ulster between the general elections in 1992 and 1997, but the numbers increased by higher percentages in other seats, including 45 per cent in Belfast West, won by Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, and 42 per cent in Belfast East, won by Peter Robinson, Mr Paisley's deputy.

The committee said: "Absent voting provides a serious threat to the integrity of the electoral system in Northern Ireland." The MPs concluded: "The present list of documents which prove identity should be replaced by a new, universally issued electoral card."

The committee, chaired by former Northern Ireland Secretary and Tory MP Peter Brooke, said: "There is sufficient evidence of organised voting- theft to indicate that the problem of electoral malpractice is serious."

As Sinn Fein returned to the talks, David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, called for the expulsion of Sinn Fein for links with IRA killings, in breach of the Mitchell principles.

Mr Adams warned Mr Trimble against trying to reach a deal with the nationalist SDLP cutting Sinn Fein out.