Unionist unity candidate Rodney Connor, who lost the election for the Fermanagh/south Tyrone seat by four votes, has lodged an election petition in the High Court asking for a full recount of the votes cast in the constituency last month.

While the Lord Chief Justice has indicated he would like to see the case dealt with before the end of this month, Solicitor for Mr. Connor, Mr. Raymond Ferguson has indicated that the preparation Mr. Connor's team must undertake in advance of any hearing could take time. "I am admitting the possibility that might turn out to be a bigger task than anticipated," he said.

That task is to scrutinise the 40,000-plus votes cast in the poll across Fermanagh and south Tyrone which are currently held in an undisclosed office in Belfast.

"We would be scrutinising these for ourselves with a view to satisfying the judge these discrepancies that appear to us that occurred did in fact occur. That is one of the procedures that have to be gone through before the trial starts," Mr. Ferguson said.

When the case gets to court, if Mr. Connor convinces the two High Court judges that his arguments have merit, he will be asking for a scrutiny of the votes and a full recount. He is also asking for a determination that Ms. Gildernew was not duly elected.

The crux of his petition is an alleged 36 invalid votes. "We have information that suggests that there could be as many as 36 invalid votes included in the count. The difference in the last count was four. . . if there are invalid votes and if they are identified, we would wish them to be removed from the count and a recount to take place on the basis of valid votes," said Mr. Ferguson.

"If there are votes that have been included that do not match {ballot paper] stubs, those votes should be excluded from the count," he said.

Four counts took place overnight on May 6 and the next day on May 7 at the electoral count at Omagh Leisure Centre last month. The final result was 21,300 to Mr. Connor and 21.304 to Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew, who was declared elected as MP.

Mr. Connor's petition alleges breaches of rules. It alleges that before counting the votes the Deputy Returning Officer, Mr. Martin Fox failed to reconcile the number of ballot papers in the ballot boxes with the ballot papers shown in the ballot paper account completed by the presiding officers at the polling stations. It also alleges that Mr. Fox failed to appropriately identify those ballot papers and failed to reject them. It is further alleged that he failed to determine the reasons for the variance between the number of ballot papers.

Mr. Connor was accompanied by Mr. Tom Elliott, UUP MLA and Mrs. Arlene Foster, DUP MLA in Belfast when the legal papers were lodged.

Mr. Elliott said: "The decision to take the issue of the General Election result to the High Court is not one that was made lightly. The reality is that having studied everything that happened at the count in Omagh, and having had correspondence with the electoral office, I feel that there are irregularities which we simply cannot allow to go unchallenged. As democrats, we cannot, and will not, sit on the sidelines and watch republicans or anyone else win a seat by default. The democratic process demands that no uncertainty should be allowed to remain about any result, and so it is vital that we press ahead with the election petition." As to costs, he said: "If we win, it will not cost us anything. If we lose, I am assuming it could cost £30,000. It depends how long it goes on. . . Clearly the two main parties will be backing it up. We would be looking for some other sponsors as well in the community." Mr. Connor said: "The election petition will allow the opportunity for the Court to determine what the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone decided on May 6. Three weeks after the election it still remains impossible to know who won the most votes on Election Day. This is a disgraceful situation.

"In one of the closest elections in United Kingdom Parliamentary history it is totally unacceptable that the counting was cut short before a consistent result was obtained. Not one of the four separate counts gave the same result and the entire counting process was littered with irregularities and procedural defects, which undoubtedly had an impact on the number of votes for each candidate. . .All I ask is that once and for all every valid vote is counted with the care and consideration which should have been paramount from the outset, so that for the first time with absolute certainty the outcome of the election can be known".

MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Ms. Michelle Gildernew said: "Essentially this is a legal matter between Rodney Connor and the Electoral Office. As far as I am concerned the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone have spoken and returned me as their MP. That is democracy and in the first past the post system that means the person with the most votes is returned as the winner. I appreciate Mr Connor may find that hard to accept but that is the rules we were all playing by. Politics has already moved on from the election and I am now totally focused on the real issues affecting people lives, principal amongst them protecting front-line services from the cuts being imposed by Mr Connor's allies in the British Tories." It is understood that one of the judges is Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan. As a barrister in 2001, he represented Ulster Unionist James Cooper, the last time that an election petition was lodged in Northern Ireland, when Mr Cooper unsuccessfully challenged Ms Michelle Gildernew's victory by 53 votes.

Even if the case is heard by the end of this month, it may be some weeks before the judges issue their findings.