VOTERS on Rathlin will be able to keep their ballot box, the Electoral Office has decided.
Islanders had been facing the prospect of travelling to Ballycastle to cast their votes in the forthcoming local government elections, following a proposal made as part of plans to reduce the number of polling stations across Northern Ireland.
“Having given due consideration to the objections and proposals received during the prescribed consultation period for the draft scheme, amendments as appropriate have duly been made,” Chief Electoral Officer Graham Shields confirmed.
Rathlin voters had protested against such a move, with a petition drawn up by the island’s Development and Community Association.
Ballycastle Sinn Féin representatives, Cllr Cara McShane and Kaleena Murphy, welcomed the announcement.
Cllr Cara McShane said: “This is great news for the people of Rathlin and to all who campaigned during this Consultation Proposal against the removal of the Polling Station from the island. The Rathlin Development and Community Association and everyone on the island worked together to have their voices heard.
“We had serious concerns about this proposal, which is why Sinn Féin met with the Chief Electoral Officer during the consultation period and tabled a motion on the subject at Moyle Council. We are relieved that common sense has prevailed and that the people of Rathlin will be entitled to exercise their democratic right to vote at the polling station on the island.”
Kaleena Murphy added: “If this proposal had been implemented, the people on Rathlin would have had to travel to Ballycastle to vote, or alternatively apply for a postal/proxy vote. This would have signalled a retrograde step at a time when the island is growing from strength to strength. Indeed it would have been in contravention of the spirit of the Executive’s policy on the Island, which was recently launched by Regional Development Minister, Conor Murphy, and this was highlighted by the Minister in his response to this consultation.
“We always felt that it was a nonsense to take away the polling station service on Rathlin and we are glad that the proposal to remove it has now been over-turned.”
North Antrim DUP MLA Mervyn Storey also welcomed the news.
Mr Storey said: “I very much welcome this change of heart on the part of the Electoral Office. There was no real viable alternative to a polling station on the island. We could have been left with the situation where weather conditions would have rendered it completely impossible for people to participate in the election.
“That was not a good advert for democracy. Very understandably there was considerable opposition from islanders to the proposal. I want to commend the work of the local Development and Community Association in leading the campaign to retain this important provision for the island.
“It is absolutely right that local people are able to feel as much a part and to play as full a parting the democratic process as possible.”
SDLP North Antrim MLA Declan O’Loan praised the decision.
He said: “There are typically around 100 votes cast on Rathlin, but the original proposal to remove the ballot box on cost grounds failed to take account of realities of geography and weather. Rathlin people should have the same democratic right as people elsewhere to cast their vote in person and should not be dependent on a sometimes uncertain ferry journey to Ballycastle to do so.”