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SINN FEIN 'THREATS KEPT POLLING STATION OPEN' Court told of UUP claim of illegal voting.

Byline: GARY KELLY

THREATS and intimidation by Sinn Fein election workers kept a polling station open illegally for 40 minutes, it was claimed yesterday.

Defeated Ulster Unionist election candidate James Cooper began a case at Belfast High Court in a bid to oust the Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew, who took the Fermanagh/South Tyrone seat on June 7 by 53 votes.

The Ulster Unionist Party is trying to force a by-election by having the result declared null and void. Mr Cooper's counsel, Declan Morgan QC, told the court presiding officer John McGovern was intimidated by Sinn Fein workers to keep the St Martin's Primary School polling station in Garrison, Co Fermanagh, open illegally after 10pm.

He said: "The evidence demonstrates there was a complete breakdown of order in the polling station around the time of its close.

"The extent of the threats and intimidation was such that the presiding officer decided to keep the poll open, despite having the clearest advice that to do so was unlawful."

He continued that at least 50 people who crowded into the polling station were capable of voting after the deadline.

The court heard how Mr McGovern was about to close the voting at around 10.05pm when he was blocked by a Sinn Fein election agent of the same name, Martin McGovern.

He decided to call the area electoral office in Omagh for advice and was told to close the polling station immediately.

The court heard how Mr McGovern's hands were shaking so violently an RUC officer, Sgt Nixon, had to dial the number for him.

On his return to the polling station Mr McGovern was again confronted by three Sinn Fein members, Martin McGovern, Stephen Huggett and Grainne Timony, who forced him to re-open the polling booths.

Mr Morgan said: "Mr McGovern was in an agitated and fearful state as he announced to the crowd he was re-opening the station.

"Once he had made his way back to the station he began re-issuing ballot papers to those in the queue. His decision was greeted by shouts and whoops."

The barrister said Sgt Nixon then became so concerned the situation was out of control he phoned Enniskillen RUC Station for support.

Giving evidence an election official said 15-20 ballot papers were issued after the 10pm closing time.

Polling clerk Andrew Halliwell said that coming up to the 10pm polling deadline there was a stand-off in the room when presiding officer John McGovern announced no more ballot papers would be issued.

Mr Halliwell confirmed Mr McGovern left to make a telephone call and when he returned he said, "Give them their extra 10 minutes".

Mr Halliwell added: "Mr McGovern was flustered and under stress.

"There was applause and cheering when he proceeded to issue ballot papers for another 10 minutes until an RUC officer called him to the door."

The court heard how the RUC officer had advised Mr McGovern to call his electoral office again at 10.23pm and on his return no more ballot papers were issued.

Under cross examination Mr Halliwell said when the polling station closed the tension heightened.

He added: "I felt anxious and some discomfort and although there was an atmosphere of tension there was no overt hostility."

The case, being heard by Lord Chief Justice Carswell and Lord Justice McCollum, is expected to last three days.

CAPTION(S):

DEFEATED: Unionist James Cooper; SINN FEIN: Michelle Gildernew
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Sep 18, 2001
Words:570
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