Electoral Office will review their policy on flag flying in polling stations

The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland will review the policy following complaints of intimidation at polling stations.

The Electoral Office has said it will review it’s policy on flag flying inside polling stations. This comes after a number of complaints about Union flags and GAA flags being on display during recent elections.

Complaints included an “intimidating” display of Union flag bunting at a primary school that was used as a polling station, and Derry GAA flags being displayed in another primary school – the complaint said it was “hardly a suitable neutral environment”.

Another voter said they told their 10 year old daughter to cover the GAA kit they were wearing after they seen people putting up Union flags outside a polling station.

Belfast Live obtained details of written complaints to the Electoral Office through a Freedom of Information request.

The Electoral Office said they will be reviewing the polling station scheme in the autumn and will look at options available to them. They continued by saying they have limited powers outside polling stations, but said that they do ask parties not to place election materials or flags on school railings and lampposts within the curtilage of the venue.

This polling station at Blythefield Primary School in South Belfast was covered in Union flag bunting and prompted some of the complaints to the Electoral Office

The Electoral Office previously said they would generally not remove displays of flags within schools but may discuss minimising them if the display is excessive.

The local council election in May was held around the same time as King Charles’ coronation, which some communities marked by displaying Union flags.

A school in Maghera, Co L/Derry, had displayed Union flag bunting which was described as intimidating by one complaint. The principal has said that they will “ensure that no flags will be displayed within the school grounds”, according to an email to the Electoral Office.

Another voter complained about Derry GAA flags that were on display outside St Finlough’s Primary School, in Ballykelly (Limavady).

The same complaint said: “Upon entry to the polling station you are then met with an idol relating to Roman Catholicism. This is hardly a suitable neutral environment for a polling station and quite intimidating to those of a PUL (Protestant unionist loyalist) background.”

SDLP MP Claire Hanna, MLA Matthew O’Toole and councillor Gary McKeown wrote to the Electoral Office raising concerns about the display at Blythefield polling station in South Belfast.

In response, the Electoral Office said: “We ask the staff from the premises to remove anything in the room to be used for the election that could be deemed offensive prior to the election.

“We do not request our polling station staff to remove flags or religious symbols from the polling premises.

“Where there are concerns, the polling station staff can discuss the issue with the office to determine if further action is required.”

It added: “We will consider this issue further and see what if any further guidance we need to provide on this.”

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