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31 July 2003 Edition

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Senior UUP member in electoral corruption probe

BY LAURA FRIEL

The Chief Executive of the Ulster Unionist Party has been arrested and questioned by the PSNI in connection with serious offences within the north's Electoral Office. Alastair Patterson (57) is one of three former Electoral Office employees being questioned in relation to allegations of forgery, false accounting and corruption.

All three were arrested last Monday 21 July and taken into PSNI custody in Omagh, where they were questioned by detectives.

The alleged offences took place within the Electoral Office between 1996 and 2001 and the investigation centres on activities in the west. Both former employees have been released on bail pending further enquiries.

Alastair Patterson, who took up his post as Chief Executive of the UUP last year, first came to prominence in 1981 when he appeared on television screens through the world as the deputy returning officer declaring IRA Hunger striker Bobby Sands as the new MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

As the UUP's Chief Executive, Alastair Patterson is currently at the centre of the disciplinary moves against the three UUP MPs who resigned the party whip. Jeffrey Donaldson, David Burnside and Martin Smyth quit the whip at Westminster in protest against David Trimble's leadership of the party.

As the Chief Executive, Patterson was due to submit the names of 20 influential party members willing to sit on a disciplinary committee to decide the fate of the three dissident MPs. In light of the Electoral Office allegations, Jeffrey Donaldson has already questioned Patterson's role in the disciplinary hearing within the party.

An earlier move by David Trimble to oust the three malcontents backfired when Belfast High Court ruled against its legality. "The whole procedure of disciplinary action is already seriously discredited as a result of the High Court case and I think that this casts further shadow over the process," said Donaldson.

But for nationalists, the question as to whether Patterson is a fit person to preside over the internal party discipline of the UUP is of little concern compared to allegations of electoral corruption and fraud.

Few details have yet emerged. The second former employee is reported as being unfit to be interviewed on medical grounds and is due to return to Omagh PSNI barracks next month. It is thought that the alleged offences relate to postal voting.

Commenting on the arrest of Alastair Patterson, Sinn Féin MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Mitchelle Gildernew, said that any attempt to manipulate closely contested elections in the west could have serious implications for the outcome.

"The nationalist electorate will of course be greatly concerned about these allegations but the unionist bias which runs throughout the entire electoral system in the North is more insidious than one or two unionists allegedly caught with their fingers in the till," said Gildernew.

Meanwhile, leading Ulster Unionist John Taylor has threatened to scupper the entire Good Friday Agreement if the proposed Independent Monitoring Body includes a nominee from the Dublin government.

UUP leader David Trimble has championed the establishment of the IMB and nationalists have seen its establishment as another sop by the British government to rejectionist unionism. But as with other concessions, as soon as they get their cake, the unionists want to eat it as well.

With two to the Dublin government's single nominee, the British government is set to exercise complete control over the actions of the IMB. Furthermore, the IMB must report directly to the NIO Secretary of State, who has ultimate power to decide to act or ignore the IMB.

The IMB is a discriminatory, anti-democratic mechanism designed to place further burdens on the nationalist electorate exercising their right to democratic representation. But recent unionist opposition to the IMB has nothing to do with this; on the contrary, unionist objection is based on opposition to even the appearance of a nationalist dimension within the IMB.

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