THE final stages of the South Down NI Assembly election were full of trials and tribulations. In a few days it will all be far behind us as we look forward to another four years of governance from Stormont.
Despite the local interest in South Down, generally across Northern Ireland voters have shown a considerable apathy once again and shunned the polling stations. The DUP was returned as the largest party sparing us all the vagaries of stalled government if Sinn Féin had become the largest party and did not receive total Unionist cooperation for the role of First Minister.
This past NI Assembly too was the first to have run its full term in 40 years and that in itself was a remarkable achievement.
But as politics starts to normalise from the troubled days of the past, the numbers turning out to the polls have dropped. This is an indication that politics in Northern Ireland is harmonising with the rest of the UK. In Scotland the turnout was 50%, Wales was 42 % and in South Down the turnout was 58.1%.
Remarkably too there was the Newry and Armagh constituency with 11 candidates – all men. In South Down, there were four women elected from the six.
After Margaret Ritchie’s efforts on Saturday evening in topping the poll for first preference votes, Caitriona Ruane came in next with the second biggest first preference vote. Both have served as NI Ministers, Ritchie as DSD Minister and Ruane still as Education Minister. Ruane has met much opposition to her reforms in education and the transfer test area and this may have had some effect on her own personal vote.
But the DUP’s Jim Wells, totally immersed in the electoral process from the word go at the count, polled the highest Unionist vote at 6542 and when Henry Reilly (UKIP) was eliminated from the contest, 948 of his votes transferred to Wells making him the third elected candidate past the quota. The second count showed a delighted Jim Wells at 6542 romping home, with John McCallister 5680, Karen McKevitt 4702, and Eamonn O’Neill on 4251, Willie Clarke 4101, and Naomi Balie 3306. Reilly’s transfer also went to John McCallister who fared strongly enough to become the fourth elected MLA saying he was “absolutely delighted”. He had received a boost from Jim Well’s surplus bringing him up to the quota. There seems to have been a determined effort in the Unionist electorate to ensure their votes transferred to overtly Unionist candidates
There had been some initial speculation that JohnMcCallister would be in a three-way tie for the last seat with Eamonn O’Neill (SDLP) and Cadogan Enright (Green Party), but circumstances proved to be completely different with McKevitt coming through strongly from the back of the pack.
As the temperature began to boil in the election in the Omniplex Centre, anxiety levels all round were beginning to increase as the last three left standing – Clarke, McKevitt and O’Neill – were looking at the fifth and sixth seats. But it was Sinn Féin’s Willie Clarke who pulled through next securing the fifth seat leaving a shoot-out between Assembly election newcomer, Newry and Mourne Councillor Karen McKevitt from near Cotgrieve, and former MLA Eamonn O’Neill from Castlewellan who currently has a strong public profile as Down District Council chairman.
A dispute over transfers moving between the Alliance and Green Party after their eliminations had earlier emerged with the SDLP claiming that it was unlikely that the Green Party would have such a high vote and not one transfer accruing to the other. But by a quirk of complex electoral ingenuity, the electoral officer was on top of the situation and eventually this matter was resolved after some time as nerves began to get frayed.
All party representatives tend to be alert for any aberrations in the system but this time round the matter was satisfactorily concluded before a total recount was ordered and this could have added on an extra day or even two to the process.
Next for election was Sinn Féin’s Willie Clarke who became the fifth MLA elected for South Down. Naomi Bailie was eliminated at this point but had had an outside chance initially depending on transfers, but it was Clarke who was successful, Bailie nevertheless making an encouraging start in her political career.
A Sinn Féin activist said that their party worked as a team and had picked up a considerable percentage of new young voters and also that it was not affected by rivalry of the sense of there being a fiefdom in South Down.
Speaking to Down News, an upbeat Caitriona Ruane said, “We ran a good campaign, and we introduced Naomi Bailie into the team. Overall we had good vote management and we are pleased with that. We are good at encouraging young people to get involved and we certainly would have liked to have won a third seat but we will have to wait and see what transpires.
“We really have a great team and have ran a great election, and we will see where we are in five years time from now.”
Clarke was elected on 6777 votes, with McKevitt trailing on 4842 and O’Neill at 4449. There was not a great deal separating the SDLP candidates.
There was one seat left and newcomer McKevitt and old hand O’Neill were to battle for this. As the drums rolled dramatically for the drama to commence, nerves were tingling in the SDLP camp. Then the announcement that McKevitt had won brought the extremes of emotion into their ranks. The SDLP team were delighted that McKevitt was elected to Stormont, but equally would have liked to see O’Neill with a place at the table. It was a very difficult moment for the South Down SDLP.
On the last count, McKevitt won by showing 5347 to O’Neill’s 4882 votes after the transfers from Clarke’s votes and she became the second South Down SDLP MLA elected.
The six South Down MLA’s are, Margaret Ritchie, SDLP; Catriona Ruane, Sinn Féin; Jim Wells, DUP: Jim McCallister, UUP; Willie Clarke, Sinn Féin; and Karen McKevitt, SDLP.
|The South Down Assembly Election Results 2011|
|Margaret Ritchie (SDLP)||8506|
|Caitriona Ruane (Sinn Féin)||5995|
|Jim Wells (DUP)||5200|
|John McCallister (UUP)||4409|
|Willie Clarke ((Sinn Féin)||3882|
|Naomi Balie (Sinn Fein)||3050|
|Eamonn O’Neill (SDLP)||2663|
|Henry Reilly (UKIP)||2332|
|Cadogan Enright (Green Party)||1107|
|David Griffin (Alliance)||864|
|South Down Turnout was 56.97%|
Comments From The Newly Elected South Down MLA’s
Margaret Ritchie (SDLP): She paid tribute to retiring South Down SDLP MLA PJ Bradley for his work over the years and thanked Karen McKevitt and Eamonn O’Neill for their great efforts in the campaign. She said, “We have a lot to offer and contribute as a party. We would have loved to see Eamonn at the Assembly. It is a privilege to serve the people and the fact that our vote is up 4% this time is no mean feat.”
Caitriona Ruane (Sinn Féin): “It is a privilege to represent South Down and I would like to thank the Sinn Féin team for it efforts and especially Naomi Balie who made a great effort for first time in the election… we have received cross-party support in this election, votes coming from all parties. We in Sinn Féin work as a team and do this across Ireland.”
Jim Wells (DUP): “We’re delighted with the result. We have two quotas for Unionism in South Down and this was well secured in the election. I would like to thank my election team and all who voted for the DUP.”
John McCallister (UUP): “This has been a huge job of work and thanks to our election team we have delivered to regain our seat in South Down… we are prepared to work with all and get the best deal for South Down.”
Willie Clarke (Sinn Féin): “It takes a lot of courage to stand in the election even for the small parties…this has been a great result fro Sinn Féin and the highlight for us has been the first time running for Naomi Balie who has polled outstandingly against the SDLP… now we all need to work together for South Down. ”
Karen McKevitt (SDLP): “I am absolutely delighted to have been elected to the Assembly and would like to thank the SDLP team for this. It was a tough contest. We will be fighting our corner here in South Down on bread and butter issues.”