ORGANISERS of a border poll campaign launched in Strabane have been accused of “gerrymandering” after admitting it will only be open to those living in staunchly nationalist areas.
The ‘United Ireland – You Decide’ campaign was described as a “People’s Referendum on a United Ireland” when it was launched at the Fir Trees Hotel last Friday. But under the terms of the initiative only a narrow section of communities on either side of the border will get to have their say.
Residents of Strabane’s East Ward (Head of the Town to Ballycolman Lane) and Lifford’s Clonleigh will go to the polls on November 23. No one else will be able to vote, prompting accusations that the campaign is little more than a “public relations exercise”.
Because of the constricted electorate, the poll is almost certain to return a ‘yes’ vote of more than 90 per-cent as it did when the campaign initially launched in Crossmaglen in May. There it attracted a solid 92 per-cent ‘yes’ in favour of Irish reunification.
Campaign chair and Sinn Féin activist Grace McDermott told those gathered that the right to a vote on the reunification of Ireland was enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. She said that issues like having two currencies, two health services and differing benefit systems were impacting on those living along the border on a daily basis and needed to be addressed.
Ms McDermott denied though that the vote was “stacked” in favour of a yes vote and said the decision to keep the poll exclusive to only a handful of people was a “practical one”.
“Because of the size of Strabane and the size of Lifford, we are trying to get a small group of people out to vote. We are trying to make it as practical as possible,” Ms McDermott said. “Not everyone who is a nationalist wants a united Ireland. It is about giving people their say and we are welcoming people to come out and vote no as well. It is about giving the local community their say and it is going to be interesting to see what those people’s views are.
“The fact that Strabane is a majority nationalist town anyway, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are going to get a large yes vote.”
Castlederg Ulster Unionist Derek Hussey revealed that he had received an email from campaign organisers but on making enquiries was informed he was ineligible to vote. He accused organisers of “gerrymandering” the vote and of engaging in a “public relations exercise”.
“I did receive an email and as someone with a strong opinion on this issue, I asked how I could vote. I felt very aggrieved that they are limiting their audience to one that would be perceived as being favourable to the desired outcome,” Cllr Hussey said.
“This is very similar to a poll that was carried out in Crossmaglen where the constituencies were gerrymandered to suit the organisers and in fact it is an exact replication of that.”
The UUP representative added, “Given the set up and methodology of this exercise, it is patently obvious it is a public relations exercise which will have no impact on the border but is engendered to bolster a Sinn Féin agenda within the Strabane and West Tyrone areas ahead of forthcoming elections.”
Polling for the campaign will take place at Fountain Street Community Centre later this month when a number of international observers will be in attendance. Ahead of voting, a series of events aimed at raising awareness of the campaign will be held while an office has been opened on Lifford’s Main Street.