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6 May 2004 Edition

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Who's sorry now?

BY JOANNE CORCORAN

The Dublin Government may have been the toast of the European establishment this week as they played host to the EU enlargement ceremonies, but on the domestic front, Bertie and Co must have wished they'd stayed in bed.

First there was Flynn. Beverly C lost her long-running libel battle against RTÉ, and while the said station gloated embarrassingly on its own news programmes, Fianna Fáil was once again faced with humiliation caused by one of its own.

Then there was May Day. Millions of euros were pumped into securing the capital city so Bertie could host dinner for the accession states without fear of an attack by the wombles. Two water cannons, thousands of riot police, several helicopters and some razor wire later, the entire country realised that the government had over-reacted to the possibility of a full-on revolution. The day went off like a damp squib and all that was proved was that the right to protest in this country is vanishing.

But the worst moment of the week for our leaders (and yet the most welcome for the general public) had to be the announcement that Minister for the Environment Martin Cullen's €52 million e-voting venture could not be used for the June elections.

The push-voting system was to be rolled out for the EU and local elections, and the referendum on citizenship on 11 June. However, an election commission was appointed to investigate the system after doubts were raised about its accuracy.

Sinn Féin had been to the fore in highlighting the dangers involved. While stating that it supported the concept of electronic voting, the party said that the Nedap/Powervote system that the government wanted to use was known to have many faults. The government, it said, would also have to ensure that there was a paper ballot of each vote for verification, when an electronic system was eventually in place.

But the government staunchly and arrogantly defended the system, insulting opponents by calling them 'luddites' and generally dismissing any concerns raised. These included the concerns of even its own voters, who bombarded the media with letters expressing their fears that their votes would be recorded inaccurately or not at all.

The government's cocky refusal to take on board legitimate criticism came back to haunt it this week, when the commission it had set up said it could not recommend use of its proposed e-voting system in June. Fianna Fáil then had to face a mortifying climb-down, while the opposition in the Dáil, particularly Sinn Féin, the media, and practically the entire population, roared collectively "We told you so".

What a waste

Aside from wasting our time with this whole pointless episode (Bertie Bowl déjà vu anybody?), the government has also wasted a good deal of taxpayers' money. Along with the €52 million which Martin Cullen forked out for 6,200 e-voting machines, the government also had €5 million set aside for a publicity campaign. Many of you have probably seen this manifested in the ridiculous 'push-the-button' ads, which reminded us that we use technology in every area of our lives, but stopped short of actually showing us what we would be faced with on June 11. And don't forget the e-voting road show - the bus that was to travel around the 26 Counties explaining the system. Then there was the cost of setting up a commission to find out that in fact, every penny the government had spent had been a waste, because we wouldn't actually be using e-voting in the next election.

Anger, relief and nerves

Of course, just about everybody in the country is torn between annoyance at this elaborate expensive joke, and relief that the traditional method of pen and paper has been given a stay of execution.

Sinn Féin's Arthur Morgan said that while he welcomed that the system had been abandoned, what was surprising was that the Government had taken so long to take the decision, given the overwhelming concerns that existed regarding the secrecy and accuracy of the system they proposed to use.

"Given the magnitude of Minister Cullen's arrogance, there was a very real fear that the government, under direction from Minister Cullen, would attempt to ignore the Commission's findings and plough ahead with the introduction of electronic voting," Morgan said.

Dublin local election candidate Ciarán Mac Annraoi articulated what most people were feeling, calling for Cullen to be sacked as punishment for his "e-voting ego trip".

However, people were more than a little disturbed at the government's insistence that the system was just delayed and would be installed eventually. The problems with electronic voting continue to be debated worldwide, and only this week Vanity Fair ran an extensive article on problems with several systems in the US. The battle for June may have been won, but the war goes on.

Six Counties suffering

While voters in the 26 Counties welcomed the news that their votes would be safe this June, the people of the Six Counties were digesting more sombre news. The publication of the latest electoral register showed that 20,000 more votes have been dropped. Sinn Féin Vice President and the party's Director of Elections Pat Doherty MP reacted quickly to the latest dismal findings, saying that they "should act as a wake up call to the British government, that they cannot continue to allow the register to be shredded year on year and that the current legislation needs to be amended".

The news of the 20,000 missing votes in the North brought recent events into perspective. In the South, the argument may rage over which system is best for voting, but in the Six Counties, people are being denied the right to vote at all, by any system, left, right and centre.

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