The trade union NIPSA is waiting for written confirmation from the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland (EONI) that its Queen Street office will not close after ‘to let’ adverts were erected over its doors.
The union, which has been involved in a campaign of industrial action in protest at a restructuring process that could see regional offices, including Queen Street, close, has also warned ongoing political uncertainty in Belfast and London has not eased workers’ peace of mind.
Staff concerns have been heightened by the advertisement by property consultancy O’Connor, Kennedy, Turtle (OKT) that the office is newly available on a ten year lease for £24,000 per year.
While a public consultation on the future of electoral services, which included an option to close the Derry office and centralise functions in Belfast, closed in January, there’s been no word since on a decision on the future of regional hubs.
Dooley Harte, a NIPSA Higher Executive Officer, said: “NIPSA has been raising concerns with EONI management for some time that delays in decision-making around the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) public consultation on future delivery of electoral services could lead to office leases expiring and current offices closing.
“That said, with regards the Queen Street electoral office, we have been informed that an agreement with the landlord has been reached and the office will not close but we await written confirmation of this.”
Last last year the erstwhile Chief Electoral Officer, Graham Shields, suggested EONI staff might co-locate with Derry City and Strabane District Council following the restructuring process. But Mr. Shields stood down in January and his successor Virginia McVea has been unable to proceed with the restructuring process due to political turmoil on both sides of the Irish Sea, precipitated by the late Martin McGuinness’ resignation in the wake of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) controversy and subsequent elections to Stormont Westminster.
Mr. Harte explained: “On the wider issue of electoral services, the findings from the public consultation initiated by Kris Hopkins MP were to be published in February 2017. However, given one of the potentials was to transfer election services to local councils, and this would likely have required ministerial approval through the Assembly, delays have occurred, primarily as a result of the collapse of the Assembly and the recent Assembly and Westminster elections.
“Also, Kris Hopkins was not re-elected in the Westminster elections and now Lord Bourne has taken over the position of Parliamentary Under Secretary of State. NIPSA has recently written to the Minister seeking a meeting on this issue and awaits a reply.
“There is no doubt that decisions regarding regional electoral offices could and should have been made earlier. It has been extremely difficult for our members to continue to deliver an excellent service to constituents when there are fewer staff, more demands and the uncertainty of if or when offices will close. NIPSA has demanded that management of EONI ensures leases of the current sites should continue up to at least December 2017 and beyond to at least provide some short term security for staff.”
The ‘Journal’ contacted EONI but at the time of going to press no-one was available.