Electoral office strike could risk referendum

Staff of Banbridge Electoral Office were joined on the picket line by NIPSA Officer Dooley Harte �Edward Byrne Photography INBL1623-229EB
Staff of Banbridge Electoral Office were joined on the picket line by NIPSA Officer Dooley Harte �Edward Byrne Photography INBL1623-229EB

The EU Referendum could be put at risk if an agreement is not reached between the Chief Electoral Officer and striking workers over office closures, according to NIPSA.

Workers at Banbridge Electoral Office are among the NIPSA members striking in response to management proposals to close six regional electoral offices.

They were joined on the picket line by a number of MLAs and local councillors, including UUP’s Jo-Anne Dobson, DUP’s Carla Lockhart and Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd and Catherine Seeley.

Talks between the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO), the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and NIPSA at the Labour Relations Agency broke down on Thursday.

Dooley Harte, NIPSA official said: “Unfortunately talks have broken down without agreement. NIPSA has put forward reasonable proposals to keep regional services open while a public consultation, due in autumn, is delayed to provide the necessary window to ensure this is as full and comprehensive as it can be.

“However management have stated Ballymena and Newtownards offices will close in October and a public consultation will take place in September despite concerns it may not be complete.”

Friday, June 3 was the closing date for postal votes while Tuesday, June 7 is the closing date for voter registration. Strike action on these dates may mean members of the public will not be able to participate in the referendum.

Mrs Harte has also written to the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, to request a meeting in search of a resolution to the dispute.

In the letter Mrs Harte stressed that ‘members do not want to strike and are concerned about the impact of their actions on the upcoming referendum’ but they are ‘prepared to continue this action’.

A motion has been submitted to NI Assembly for debate, with NIPSA confident it will receive cross party support.

UUP MLA Jo-Anne Dobson has thrown her support behind the strike.

“Following an announcement of 15 per cent cuts to their budget I spoke personally to the Chief Electoral Officer and have written on numerous occasions to the Secretary of State expressing my extreme disappointment at this situation which leaves offices threatened with closure and staff worried for the future,” she said.

“We have experience of the professional service which the staff at the electoral office in Banbridge provide. You cannot simply replicate that service in its entirety online and expect everything to operate as before.”