Foyle: SDLP shell-shocked as Elisha McCallion wins for Sinn Féin

Mark Durkan had held the seat since 2005, when John Hume retired

 

“All is changed, changed utterly.”

It was that sort of election night in Foyle, the kind which encourages reporters to reach for the adjectives, or even seek out a quotation or two.

Elisha McCallion of Sinn Féin swept aside the sitting MP Mark Durkan and a majority of 6,000 to take the seat in Foyle by 169 votes – and in so doing, ushered in change not just in Derry City, but across the North.

By any definition it was a historic result.

She is the first Sinn Féin MP in the city in almost 100 years – and the first female MP in Foyle.

Watched by, among others, Bernie McGuinness — the wife of the late deputy first minister Martin McGuinness – she paid tribute to his influence and legacy.

“We did this for you,” she said.

The signs were there – in the North’s Assembly elections in March Ms McCallion topped the poll in Foyle, with Sinn Féin’s candidates taking 2,000 more first preferences than their SDLP rivals, yet Durkan’s sizeable majority and his ability to attract unionist voters keen to keep Sinn Féin out all costs was felt to be enough to see him home, albeit with a reduced majority.

The increased turnout – 65.6% in Foyle, again following the pattern first set in March, clearly benefited Sinn Féin, which fought a campaign buoyed up by the momentum which has been building since the collapse of the Stormont Assembly in January and which was reflected at the ballot box a few months ago.

At the count in the Foyle Arena, the smiles of Sinn Féin party activists said it all. They were quietly confident – until one could contain himself no longer. “170 votes ahead,” he shouted, and the lobby of the leisure centre erupted in cheers.

Sinn Féin’s Northern leader, Michelle O’Neill, hugged her party colleague Ms McCallion as others looked on, some visibly emotional at the significance of the moment.

After a recount, the result was declared – 18,256 to Ms McCallion, 18,087 to Mr Durkan.

“I cannot tell a lie and say it doesn’t hurt,” said a clearly emotional Mr Durkan, who has been the MP for Foyle since 2005.

In his concession speech, he paid tribute to the “achievements and contributions” of his predecessor as MP, John Hume, and said his record was in no way diminished by the result.

The city of John Hume, Foyle has long been regarded as an SDLP stronghold; if Sinn Féin could take Foyle, then the SDLP had to be fighting for its Westminster life.

“Before the evening is out, we’re likely to a situation where there isn’t one Irish nationalist speaking for Irish nationalism in the House of Commons, and I think that’s a very sad day,” said the SDLP leader and Foyle MLA, Colum Eastwood.

He was right. The party’s other MPs, Alasdair McDonnell in South Belfast and Margaret Ritchie in South Down, were also defeated. 

“This is a tradition that was begun by Daniel O’Connell, and I think we all have to reflect on what that means,” said Mr Eastwood.

In Derry, the city famous for its walls, the SDLP’s defences have finally been breached.

All is changed, changed utterly.

Previous Westminster elections

2010 – Mark Durkan (SDLP) defeated Sinn Féin’s Martina Anderson (16,922 votes to 12,098).

2015 – Mr Durkan beat Sinn Féin’s Gearóid Ó hEára (17,725 to 11,679).