The Derryman who ran the elections in Northern Ireland during The Troubles – before going on to work as an electoral advisor for the UN and EU around the world – has written a book about his experiences.
‘Ballots, Bombs and Bullets’ is the memoir of former NI Chief Electoral Officer Pat Bradley. The book is the story of how someone with no background and very little training in electoral law and process found himself in charge of Northern Ireland’s elections at its most challenging time – becoming a recognised world expert in the process.
Bradley’s remarkable career had two distinct and overlapping phases which the book outlines in detail. The first saw him tasked with running elections in Northern Ireland throughout The Troubles – where he kept electoral democracy going in a society teetering on the edge of civil war. As a result of his work and experiences in NI Bradley became a recognised global expert in elections and conflict resolution. That saw the UN, EU and UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office beat a path to his door to secure his help in running elections in troubled hotspots and emerging democracies around the world. So commenced the second phase of his career, where he served as a senior/lead technical advisor in elections in 30 countries and five continents – from South Africa to Saudi Arabia, Kosovo to Hong Kong, and Russia to Lebanon. All of which saw him awarded an MBE in 1986 and a CBE in 1999 ‘For Service to the Electoral Process’.
The first part of the book outlines how, despite his clear lack of relevant experience or prior knowledge for the role, Bradley secured a job in 1973 as a Deputy Electoral Officer for a large chunk of the West of NI. He was based in his home city of Derry, which was badly affected by The Troubles and a challenging place to run elections – with paramilitary groups determined to undermine or stop the democratic process. A previously untold insight revealed in the book is that – at this very period when it was essential to ensure democracy worked and was seen to work in NI – its electoral infrastructure was an organisational shambles. When Bradley started his job he was given next to no training, and discovered that most of the other Deputy Electoral Officers across NI had reluctantly taken the role to see out their years in the public sector – with little intention of actually doing much work. Bradley also found he had insufficient staff support and no suitable offices to work from, and that the basic materials needed to run elections (e.g. ballot boxes etc) were stored in a rusting shed in Bushmills – 40 miles away from his Derry base. Within weeks of starting the job – and still without any training, backup or facilities – he was thrown in at the deep-end by the sudden announcement of the February 1974 General Election. It was to be the first of many elections Pat organised in challenging circumstances over the next 26 years. In 1980 he was promoted to the role of Chief electoral Officer for all of Northern Ireland, with the buck stopping with him for elections over the following two decades.
A series of key elections affecting NI’s future took place during his time in office – from the election of Hunger Striker Bobby Sands in 1981, to the Forum elections in 1996 and the Good Friday Agreement referendum in 1998. ‘Ballots, Bombs and Bullets’ offers many fascinating insights and anecdotes into what was involved in running elections in Northern Ireland throughout the Troubles – from a 200lb bomb left opposite Bradley’s office desk, to the time he evacuated his staff by armoured car from a polling station that was under attack before taking their place to ensure it remained open so the election could be deemed valid. The book also tackles the thorny issue of voter fraud and ‘personation’ in NI – outlining the lengths some people went to to indulge in the practise, and the constantly evolving responses required to tackle it. It also shines a light on the informal ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that existed between nationalist and unionist parties in NI with regards voter impersonation – with both sides engaged in the act – until the practise grew to such an industrial scale that Bradley was able to persuade Westminster to take action. Bradley (who was officially an independent public officer) also challenged and won a legal tussle with Margaret Thatcher after she declared to parliament that he would follow a particular course of action which he didn’t agree with.
Of the many elections Pat Bradley worked on, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement Referendum was undoubtedly his magnum opus. It was crucial to the entire Peace Process that the way the referendum was run was beyond reproach (especially with high profile opponents to the Agreement’s success). Bradley went to great lengths to ensure it was run in a watertight manner – even agreeing to sleep overnight with the completed ballot boxes to assuage Ian Paisley of his paranoia that the State might seek to interfere with them. And he was memorably broadcast around the world as he announced the “71.12%” result of the Good Friday Referendum in footage that is still regularly screened to this day (and featured in the final episode of Derry Girls). To Bradley’s credit the legitimacy of the referendum and its result has never been questioned – either at the time or since – in a part of the world where pretty much anything political gets challenged. It was a not insignificant contribution to ensuring that the path towards peace could continue to be followed within NI. The Secretary of State at the time wrote to Bradley stating that: “The organisation and administration of the elections was a truly formidable task, but one which you performed with remarkable skill. Its success is a real testament to your expertise, commitment and unique ability”.
After covering Pat’s 26yrs running elections in NI, ‘Ballot’s, Bombs and Bullets’ then goes on to describe how the knowledge and expertise he had acquired in Northern Ireland was highly sought after by major international organisations in their attempts to introduce or enhance democracy in areas of conflict. Both before and after he retired as Chief Electoral Officer in 2000, Bradley spent a number of years advising on elections in over 30 countries around the world. He was a Technical Advisor in the first full democratic elections held in South Africa in 1994 in which Nelson Mandela (who Pat met twice) was elected, as well as the first democratic elections held in a number of post-Communist European nations, including Russia. In the process of his work Pat rubbed shoulders with Presidents in places like South Africa, Bosnia and Kyrgyzstan, and was even shot at in East Timor. An outline of Pat’s experiences in 20 countries is provided in the book, complete with details of various comical situations and close shaves he encountered in the process.
As well as outlining Pat Bradley’s 30 year experience running elections in NI and elsewhere, the book also has a chapter that provides background information on types of democractic governance, voting systems, eligibility to vote, electoral boundaries, expenditure rules for candidates, counting and announcing election results etc.
Former Northern Ireland Ombudsman and current Deputy Chair of the NI Policing Board Tom Frawley has written the foreword to ‘Ballots, Bombs & Bullets’. He commented “This book is important because it provides a birds-eye view and a personal perspective into the life and times of a senior public servant, who occupied a pivotal role in one of the critical strands of our public life – overseeing the cycle of elections that eventually took us to the Good Friday Agreement referendum and the new Assembly. In the process of which Pat became the go-to person for international organisations when they wanted to run elections in such contested regions as the Balkans, East Timor, the Middle East and many more. Pat Bradley for me warrants our recognition for a life of public service dedicated to the people of Northern Ireland and beyond”.
‘Ballots, Bombs and Bullets’ would be of note to anyone with an interest in recent Northern Ireland history, elections and international attempts to introduce democracy. The book costs £15 and can be bought online here : Ballots Bombs and Bullets Book Pat Bradley 2022 | Etsy UK or in ebook format from Amazon. It is also available in Belfast from No Alibis book shop (Botanic Ave) and in Derry from Little Acorns Bookstore (Foyle Street) and Foyle Books (Craft Village).