25 October 2001 Edition

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Beaten unionist loses in court

"I look forward to getting on with my job to represent all of the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. My door is open to everybody in the constituency and I look forward to representing them."

These were the first words spoken by Michelle Gildernew after the High Court in Belfast, on Friday 20 October, dismissed the case to unseat the Sinn Féin MP taken by defeated unionist candidate James Cooper.

The UUP candidate had challenged Gildernew's victory, claiming that Sinn Féin supporters intimidated election staff in a polling booth in Garrison, County Fermanagh, forcing them to keep the station open for between 5 and 15 minutes after the 10pm closing time.

Cooper, who lost the election by the narrow margin of 53 votes, argued that the votes cast in that time meant the election result was invalid.

During the two-day hearing last month, a number of polling clerks gave evidence saying that in the time the poll remained open after 10 o'clock between 15 and 20 votes were cast.

In their judgment, judges Carswell and McCollum said: "We do not consider that the number of voting papers issued in that time could be materially more than 30 and that number falls well short of the successful candidates majority of 53 votes.

"We therefore rule that the breaches of the regulations did not affect the result of the election".

Carswell criticised the incidents in the polling station as "extremely reprehensible" but added that "it is understandable that electors who had waited for some time to cast their vote should feel angry at finding themselves deprived of the opportunity through no fault of their own".

Speaking after the verdict, Gildernew dismissed unionist claims of intimidation. "If there had been any evidence of intimidation we wouldn't have won the case and there was no evidence of reprehensible behaviour," she said.

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