Republicans were tonight accused of orchestrating a massive vote fraud and threatening nationalist voters as a new cheating row marked the election campaign in Northern Ireland.
With more than 41,000 postal and proxy votes distributed in advance of Thursday’s poll, the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble claimed abuse of the system was rife in constituencies where Sinn Fein expected to do well.
The SDLP also alleged elderly voters had been intimidated in south Down by republicans canvassing support.
Mr Trimble claimed: ‘‘There is every reason to believe it (voting fraud) is happening on a massive scale with regard to the seats Sinn Fein is targeting.
‘‘They have been working on it for years and government has not been treating the issue seriously enough, because it cannot be combated without some significant changes to electoral law.’’
Mr Trimble, whose future will hinge on whether his candidates can resist the anti-Agreement DUP and nationalists in several constituencies on Thursday, was responding to Sinn Fein protests about the early release of postal votes to the UUP in the key constituencies of West Tyrone and Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
Republicans have claimed a cover-up. One electoral officer has been suspended but in connection with an unrelated manner.
SDLP chief whip Eddie McGrady also claimed he had received six reports of elderly people being told by Sinn Fein canvassers: ‘‘We will know how you vote and we will be back if you don’t vote the right way.’’
Mr McGrady called on the chief electoral officer to make a statement confirming that the electoral process is secret and sacrosanct and it is impossible to tell how anyone votes.
‘‘I call on that party (Sinn Fein) to desist from such intimidation,’’ he said.
His claims followed an attack on SDLP West Tyrone candidate Brid Rodgers yesterday who was pelted with eggs in a mainly republican village.
Sinn Fein denied any part in the attack.
Mrs Rodgers is in a tight contest for the seat with Sinn Fein vice president Pat Doherty and Ulster Unionist William Thompson.
Sinn Fein hit back at claims of voting fraud and intimidation, with national chairman Mitchel McLaughlin denying the party had ever been involved in electoral fraud.
‘‘These are pathetic attempts to try to explain the massive vote for Irish unity that exists and the increasing support for Sinn Fein,’’ he said.
‘‘The fact that David Trimble should make this statement in a week where the High Court heard that his party members were distributing a postal vote application forms before they were even issued to the other parties is a piece of unbelievable hypocrisy.
‘‘Mr Trimble should get his own house in order before he starts making allegations against anybody else.’’
A Sinn Fein spokesman also hit back at Mr McGrady’s claims, insisting his party had been the victim of the ‘‘only real acts of deliberate intimidation’’ during the campaign.
‘‘The only real evidence of electoral malpractice has been laid at the door of the UUP,’’ he continued.
‘‘Everything else is a smokescreen by parties trying to scare their vote out or make excuses for any failures in these elections.’’