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Irony of DUP's democratic view

(Editorial, Irish News)

If a prominent Sinn Féin representative had just admitted that he was guilty of electoral fraud, we would now be in the middle of a full-blown political crisis.

The DUP would probably be on the brink of withdrawing from the forthcoming talks and Ian Paisley would undoubtedly have highlighted his outrage during his appearance at an event at the Labour Party conference in Manchester yesterday (Thursday).

However, as the guilty plea was actually entered by a DUP politician, the former mayor of Coleraine Dessie Stewart, responses on all sides have been extremely low-key.

The DUP is carrying out an internal investigation but Mr Stewart, who is due to be sentenced next month, remains a sitting councillor for the party in Coleraine.

Mr Stewart admitted a total of six charges relating to the general and local government elections of May 2005, when he appeared at Antrim Crown Court earlier this week.

They included pretending to be someone else in order to cast postal votes at both district council and parliamentary level and fraudulently preventing the use of proxy votes.

By any standards, these were serious offences which could only have been intended to influence the outcome of the most recent elections to be staged in Northern Ireland.

Mr Stewart is hardly a political newcomer, having represented the DUP on Coleraine Borough Council for more than 17 years.

He has also been active in the Orange Order, the Royal Black Institution and the Apprentice Boys of Derry.

The day before Mr Stewart was in court, his party colleague, the Rev William McCrea, spoke passionately during a Stormont debate about his opposition to sharing power with republicans.

Mr McCrea concluded that, in all the circumstances, Sinn Féin had a very long way to go before it could be accepted into government.

This may all be understandable, at a certain level, but the great problem is that it is not only Sinn Féin politicians who have a past.

As John Dallat of the SDLP immediately pointed out during the same Stormont debate, Mr McCrea himself had no difficulty in sharing a Portadown platform with the sectarian mass murderer Billy Wright in 1996.

In the light of Mr Stewart's conviction for electoral fraud, it was particularly ironic to hear Mr Paisley tell the Labour conference less than 24 hours later that Sinn Féin will have to 'bow to the dawn of democracy'.

Mr Paisley should be prepared to acknowledge that respect for the democratic process must extend in all directions.

September 30, 2006

This article appeared first in the September 29, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

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