MR ROBIN SWANN MLA, the Ulster Unionist Party North Antrim Assemblyman and UUP Chief Whip, has issued a stern warning to the Stormont Executive that the closures of regional Electoral Offices “could have a devastating long-term effect on rural communities”.
Assemblyman Swann, a Past Chairman of the influential Rural Youth Europe organization before becoming an MLA, also urged the community to rally behind the campaign to save the regional offices.
His warning and rallying cry came following a debate on the intended closures in the Assembly. One of the offices to be axed is in Ballymena.
Mr Swann said: “Support has been shown by all the parties for the local office in Ballymena and the work that it does.
“One of the things that we have to concentrate on is the fact that the office is being closed while the consultation, so to us in North Antrim, Mid Ulster and even that certain section of East Londonderry that uses the Ballymena office we are concerned that the decision has already been made.
“Let me put it on record that Mid and East Antrim Borough Council are working to try to facilitate a continual presence in the town, It made offers of premises to the Electoral Office to enable it to retain a presence in Ballymena while the consultation was ongoing. That work was invaluable, and I hope that it bears fruit. I am not prepared to give up on it already.
“One of the reasons the Electoral Office has put forward to support its ability to close regional offices is registration online and what a great success that will be. Members have already mentioned the invaluable face-to-face service that people rely on.
“We have just recently witnessed the complete collapse of online registration in England and Wales, due to people trying to register for the Brexit campaign. We in Northern Ireland should learn that lesson.
“We have an excellent facility in place that relies on and supports the face-to-face service that we need to provide, but we could explore an online facility that could be provided and enhanced.
We in Northern Ireland cannot forget the independent work of the Electoral Office, its work also focuses on not so much on who gets on the electoral register, but the work that it does to ensure that the people who are on it should be on it, and that the register is not abused or misused.
“In the last monitoring round, the Finance Minister allocated £5·3 million to the Electoral Office for the running of the last Assembly elections surely some moneys could be found to retain the presence of those offices, at least while the consultation is ongoing, to allow the democratic process to take place.
“I would like to thank the staff who work in the Ballymena office for the work that they do and congratulate them on it. Although we have seen pickets and reduced labour, I know that the staff there have made sure that everything is in place.
“They have gone the extra mile to make sure that no service fails while they are there. However, look at those staff as individuals and the relocation that is offered. Ballymena office staff are being offered temporary relocation to Mallusk for a short period until the Mallusk office is closed, when they would be transferred to Belfast.
“There is no doubt that this is about a centralisation of our electoral offices. The Assembly in its last session, passed a Rural Needs Act that specifically aimed to make sure that our rural population and our rural towns and villages are not adversely affected by decisions. The Northern Ireland Office should look to its responsibilities and duties under that Act,” said Assemblyman Swann.