Enniscorthy Guardian

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The Celtic Tiger's white elephant



SO it looks like 'our stupid aul pencils' got the last laugh.

With Ireland's 7,500 e-voting machines now up for sale or waste disposal if they can't be sold, the end is finally in sight for a costly saga going back some 13 years.

Following research and trial runs the machines were eventually purchased in 2002 for €50 million as the Fianna Fail led government sought to push ahead with their introduction.

However, amid serious concerns surrounding the accuracy and security of the machines the government was eventually forced to set up an independent commission to look into these concerns.

The commission found the concerns were justified and plans to use them in the 2004 elections were scrapped just a month before people voted in June.

Since then, it has cost the stage a whopping €3.5m to store Ireland's e- voting machines.

Dutch firm Nedap made the machines and public concerns in the Netherlands and Germany later prompted the decommissioning of thousands of the machines in those countries.

Unbowed by these setbacks, the government - with Noel Dempsey, Martin Cullen and Bertie Ahern leading the charge - were determined that they could still salvage the situation and introduce e-voting for the 2009 elections.

Then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told the Dail in 2007 that by not adopting the new technology ' this country will move into the 21st century being a laughing stock with our stupid aul pencils'.

However, the pencils were eventually considered the more trustworthy method of voting by the public. Besides, did we really want to be deprived of the political theatre of the count centre?

That's still the main event in an Irish election, be it local or national. What would an election be without tallies, recounts and groups of middle aged men struggling to hoist their new TD high into the air?

We have no need to be embarrassed about our pencils, but we should be blushing over the fact that the e-voting machines which have cost the State €55 million are now ' valueless', according to Finance Minister Michael Noonan.

The embarrassment must be acute as despite several requests to view and photograph the 240 machines in Wexford this newspaper has been repeatedly refused access to what - by the government's own admission - is now a warehouse full of junk.

'I want to finally draw a line under the electronic voting project and also see that the equipment is disposed of properly,' said Environment Minister Phil Hogan.

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He said the government will try recover what costs it can, but he's not overly optimistic. 'While being optimistic we also need to be realistic. It is possible that no reasonable or acceptable offer for sale will be received,' he said. In that case they will be recycled or disposed of.

The government, which is using a tender process, really has a task on its hands to try sell them. It's not just a case of 7,500 e-voting machines for sale (barely used, one careful owner), those machines also came with 54 reading units for uploading candidate details and downloading votes; 12,842 ballot modules used to store votes cast; 292 cases for carrying the units and modules; 1,232 transport and storage trolleys and 2,142 hand trolleys; 4,787 metal tilt tables the machines sit on and 918 tray attachments.

People can buy individual machines or the whole lot if they feel like it. The government is hoping a country that has e-voting in place will see an opportunity to upgrade the machines, though it's reckoned this would be a very costly process and not worth attempting.

' There may be a market for them in Irish-themed pubs across the world,' joked Minister Noonan recently, though the response from a number of publicans was less than favourable to that tongue-in-cheek suggestion. There's no novelty or nostalgia to be found here. The minister was right the first time - they are now completely without value.

The machines were originally stored at 25 regional locations until, four years ago, 4,762 were moved to a central facility at Gormanston Army camp in Co Meath at a one-off cost of €328,363 - another milestone in one of the biggest wastes of public money ever seen in this country.

A further 14 machines are held in the Custom House, Dublin. The remaining machines are stored at 13 premises chosen by local returning officers, including Sinnottstown Lane in Wexford.