Sinn Féin claimed an important symbolic victory in Londonderry as they secured more first preference votes than their nationalist rivals the SDLP.
While both parties returned two candidates each, Sinn Féin got theirs across the line first with former Mayor of Derry City and Strabane, Elisha McCallion, comfortably topping the poll ahead of the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, who got elected on the third count behind Sinn Fein’s Raymond McCartney.
While Sinn Fein had long ago surpassed the SDLP as the dominant party of nationalism elsewhere in Northern Ireland, Foyle has remained an SDLP stronghold where – until last night’s result – they had beaten Sinn Féin in every election for decades.
Mark H Durkan atrributed Sinn Féin’s strong showing to Arlene Foster’s “negative” campaign, saying she had played into Sinn Féin’s hands.
“Sinn Fein have obviously ran a very hard campaign, they’ve worked hard to get their vote out,” he said. “I think what was more key to increasing their vote by so much was Arlene Foster and her remarks throughout the campaign and the way that she chose to fight the campaign. That has done more for Sinn Fein than anything else.”
He added: “That’s the way the politics of fear works. It drives people to the extreme parties.”
The Foyle constituency has always returned at least one unionist seat and Gary Middleton found himself comfortably out in front of the UUP’s candidate, Julia Kee, on first preference vote. Kee polled 1,660 votes to Middleton’s 5,975.
The DUP candidate faced the challenge of veteran socialist Eamonn McCann for the final seat, McCann having declared himself out of the running early on despite retaining an outside chance.
While votes were still being counted as the News Letter went to press late last night, DUP MP Gregory Campbell had already declared himself pleased with Gary Middleton.
“Nearly 6,000 votes – and that’s in spite of the last eight weeks,” he said.