In Belfast, they still vote early and often

The ancient and dishonourable art of personation is part of the culture. But the etiquette has changed and old niceties are being swept away

David McKittrick
Tuesday 29 April 1997 23:02

In the cockpit seat of West Belfast, supporters of John Hume's Social Democratic and Labour Party are today distributing leaflets bearing a stark message: "Make sure your vote - and not a stolen vote - elects your MP."

The message is plain. The SDLP is accusing Sinn Fein, which is trying to win the seat back for Gerry Adams, of resorting to personation and electoral malpractices. If the party is correct, the ancient and dishonourable art of personation and vote stealing still has its practitioners.

The electoral authorities privately acknowledge that there are wrong- doings and irregularities, but their extent is in dispute. The official line is that while it is pretty much endemic, its scale is probably limited. Others disagree, alleging it is widespread.

The persistence of irregularity is perhaps hardly surprising, given that for centuries it has been a recognised part of the Irish political scene. While much rhetorical lip-service is paid to the democratic processes, electoral practices have not been held in reverence by either Unionists or nationalists.

My mother recalled the late Terence O'Neill, while prime minister of Northern Ireland, shaking her hand and urging her to "vote early and vote often". My grandmother's parlour, one election day in the Sixties, was filled with hats and coats to give personators a change of clothing.

It is, in other words, part of the culture and regarded as a feature of politics, at most a venial sin and certainly not a mortal one. It ranks on a par with offences such as tax-dodging and distilling poteen in illicit stills.

In Northern Ireland it is a survivor of a one-time battery of highly questionable techniques which included gerrymandering, the drawing of boundaries designed to maximise the value of Unionist votes. Most of these old ways have gone, but the tradition of vote-rigging lingers on.

Though the practice is publicly condemned, Northern Ireland politicians - including some MPs and even members of the Lords - cheerfully recall how they operated in the old days. It even had its own vocabulary: plugging meant to cast someone else's vote, while an open box was a polling station devoid of personation agents. An open box was riddled, meaning numerous fake votes were cast.

The old Sixties civil rights slogan of "one man, one vote" takes on an ironic aspect when the folklore is recounted of individuals voting dozens of times. Even though all this was illegal, both Unionists and nationalists observed certain conventions and customs. It was considered bad form for a Unionist personator to plug a nationalist vote; what he did was to vote on behalf of those Unionist electors too apathetic to vote themselves.

It was the entry of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, into the political arena in the early Eighties which shattered all the old protocols and swept away the traditional niceties. The republicans, according to all other parties, simply plugged every vote they could get their hands on.

One telling indicator of this was in the soaring numbers of tendered ballot papers, signifying people who arrived at polling stations to find their vote had already been cast by someone else. In a 1982 poll there were more than 700 of these; the following year there were almost a thousand, together with 149 arrests of alleged personators. This was the heyday of vote-stealing.

The changing etiquette of the situation was described by the late Unionist MP Harold McCusker, who told the Commons: "In the comparatively recent past there occurred benign personation, practised by both sides, operated by both sides, and with unwritten rules. But that has now changed because Sinn Fein have broken the rules - they have engaged in vote-stealing on a massive scale."

The government claimed then that perhaps 20 per cent of Sinn Fein's 102,000 votes in 1983 were obtained by electoral abuse, and the laws were considerably tightened, with voters required to produce medical cards or other identification.

At that point the issue seemed to die down, though the occasional sign emerged to suggest that abuses had not been eradicated.

At the last general election, for example, myself and another journalist stopped at a Sinn Fein caravan parked outside a major polling station in West Belfast.

Propped up on a shelf in the caravan was what looked like a batch of new medical cards. The first in the sheaf was certainly a medical card, and the edges of what appeared to be others could be seen behind it. Gerry Adams later suggested to us that a medical card might have been left in for somebody coming in later, but stressed that was entirely speculation on his part. Any suggestion that false cards were being used was completely untrue, he said.

"The allegations are not true. The electoral office has asked the SDLP on numerous occasions to produce evidence and they have not been able to do so. It's the worst sort of negative campaigning."

People in authority say privately that vote-stealing does go on, but argue that it is on a much smaller scale than the SDLP maintains. They also say it is by no means confined to Sinn Fein: "Everybody abuses," according to one senior figure, "it's just that the Provos are probably more organised than anybody else."

Even if the scale of rigging is small, in at least three constituencies the result is expected to be so close that a few hundred votes either way could determine the outcome.

They include the three seats which Sinn Fein has ambitions of winning - West Belfast, Mid-Ulster, and West Tyrone.

The extent of abuse is, it seems, impossible to pin down. But it does seem the case that there are still political apparatchiks working away in the political undergrowth to maximimise their votes through the black arts of vote-stealing.

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