Ex-speaker for dissident republican group Gary Donnelly tops Derry poll

Sinn Féin loses position as largest party in council as SDLP gains seats

It was a bruising election for Sinn Féin in Derry and Strabane, where the party lost five seats and their position as the largest party on the council.

The SDLP gained three seats to put both parties on 11 seats each.

In The Moor District Electoral Area (DEA), Gary Donnelly – a sitting Independent councillor and former spokesman for the dissident republican 32 County Sovereignty Movement – topped the poll and was re-elected as an Independent councillor on the first count.

There had been speculation that Mr Donnelly’s electoral prospects would be damaged by the murder of 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee by the New IRA in Derry on April 19th.


Mr Donnelly said his election was an endorsement of the work he had been carrying out on behalf of his constituents. He refused to answer when asked by The Irish Times about the murder of Ms McKee.

Smaller parties

The success of smaller parties across Northern Ireland was paralleled in Derry.

Veteran campaigner Eamonn McCann and his party colleague Shaun Harkin gained People Before Profit's first two seats on Derry City and Strabane District Council (DCSDC).

Mr McCann said their election was “part of a clear left-wing advance”.

“What the election shows overall is that there is an increasing appetite for alternatives to parties which are colour-coded either orange or green,” he said.

Two Alliance candidates were elected to give the party its first electoral representation in Derry in 38 years.

Rachael Ferguson, who was elected for Alliance in the Faughan DEA, had been asked to stand by the party leader, Naomi Long, after she messaged her about the lack of a female Alliance candidate in the area.

“I only went and done it!”, Ms Ferguson said on social media after her victory. “I cannot believe it!”

Dr Anne McCloskey, a retired GP and prominent pro-life campaigner, won a seat on behalf of pro-life republican party Aontú, in what is the party’s first electoral success in the North.

“This was a foundational election,” said Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín. “We didn’t exist four months ago, but what we sought to do was to select candidates to build an organisation around and we have done that.”

Sinn Féin and SDLP

The SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the party’s success in Derry and Strabane was the start of a “resurgence” which he hoped would see the SDLP retake the Foyle seat at Westminster in the next UK general election.

Among the SDLP’s new councillors is Mary Durkan, the niece of former Foyle MP Mark Durkan and sister of MLA Mark H Durkan, who topped the poll in Foyleside with more than 1,200 first preference votes.

“It’s early days for us in terms of the renewal project,” Mr Eastwood said, “but what we’re finding across the North is that in places where we run new, young, talented candidates and put a good campaign behind them we can win seats.

“We have an awful lot of work to do across the North. There are large parts of the North where we need to put a lot of effort in, but we know what the formula is and we’re going to multiply it.

Six sitting Sinn Féin councillors failed to win re-election, including former mayors Kevin Campbell and Maolíosa McHugh.

Sinn Féin MLA Raymond McCartney acknowledged that the count had been challenging for the party and he was in no doubt there were “lessons for us to learn”.

“When the electorate speak to you, you have to listen,” he said.

“We will go away, and we will examine this.

“Across the picture the Sinn Féin vote has held up well, and I think it sends a very clear message that the political institutions need to be up again on the right terms.

“We have to focus on our own message that we have received here, and that’s what we’ll be doing in the coming days and weeks, and we’ll learn from it and we’ll get strength from it,” he said.

With counting now complete in Derry and Strabane, the final tally is Sinn Féin 11, SDLP 11, DUP 7, UUP 2, Alliance 2, People Before Profit 2, Independents 4 and Aontú 1.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times