A former DUP mayor who “attacked the very heart of democracy” through electoral fraud is beginning a four-month prison sentence.
Dessie Stewart, who once welcomed 26-County premier Bertie Ahern to Coleraine, was also banned from voting or taking public office for five years.
The former DUP stalwart took the votes of elderly nursing home residents and made them out in favour of himself and party colleague Gregory Campbell in last year’s local and general elections.
Judge Piers Grant said an immediate jail sentence was called for because what he had done “compromises our electoral system and attacks the very heart of our democracy”.
Meanwhile, a second prosecution is being prepared after Stewart was captured on camera punching a press photographer while arriving for an earlier court hearing last month.
Judge Grant said yesterday he had “considered whether it would be appropriate to impose a suspended sentence, but given the seriousness of the offences, the position of responsibility held by you at the time, your response to the offences and your arrogant dismissal of the expressed concerns of the staff when you demanded these voting papers, I have concluded that an immediate custodial sentence is required.”
Earlier, prosecuting lawyer Derval McGuigan said an “overbearing” Stewart had gone to the Tieve Tara Nursing home in Portrush to demand the postal votes for the elderly residents and told staff: “This is the way it was going to be done from now on and that everybody had a right to vote”.
The ballot papers were handed over because staff believed as a councillor he knew what he was doing.
Ms McGuigan said when the owner of the nursing home, who had been on holiday, later challenged him, Stewart told her “what he had done was legal”.
The DUP has routinely accused Sinn Féin and other parties of engaging in fraudulent practices in general and local elections in the Six Counties.