SF takes seat in East Antrim cliffhanger

 

East Antrim proved a cliffhanger in the Northern Assembly election with the last seat going to Sinn Féin councillor Oliver McMullan after a marathon two-day count.

It is the first time a republican has won a seat in East Antrim since the constituency was established, although there was a nationalist seat in 1998 when Danny O’Connor of the SDLP held it for a term.

The battle came down to a two-way contest between the former independent Mr McMullan and Ulster Unionist candidate Rodney McCune, although for a time during the count the DUP was in contention for a fourth seat and the Alliance for a second.

Hours before the final declaration, Mr McCune had privately conceded he could not win and left the count at the Valley leisure centre in Newtownabbey.

The process was drawn out even further when Alliance candidate Stewart Dickson and the UUP’s Roy Beggs were deemed elected.

Their combined surplus of about 600 votes provided a mathematical possibility that Cllr McMullan could win by a mere handful of votes, so the surpluses were then counted. In the end, the victory margin was 498 votes.

Cllr McMullan described the result as “very historic”. He said “we made the breakthrough in North Antrim a few years ago, and South Antrim last year and now in East Antrim”.

The result was a “victory for the peace process and a ringing endorsement of our party policy. It is also a ringing endorsement that the electorate wants to move on.”

He is hoping to make more history in the local elections by contesting the Larne council area where a republican has yet to win a seat.

With the extension of the boundary into the Glens of Antrim and his home base of Cushendall the Catholic population rose by 4.1 per cent with a resultant drop of 3.9 per cent in the unionist population.

The DUP’s Sammy Wilson, Finance Minister in the Northern executive, said at the final declaration, that as a unionist he regretted the fact that East Antrim now had a Sinn Féin representative. He criticised the UUP and claimed that their non-transferable votes led to this “situation”.

Mr Wilson, whose party is in government with Sinn Féin, said he hoped the progress made in the constituency would not be “poisoned by bad behaviour from Sinn Féin”.

But Cllr McMullan quipped that he wanted to “thank Sammy for the transfers we got from the DUP”. He said “we don’t need to be told to behave ourselves” and added that he would work with all the parties in the Assembly.

Successful Alliance candidate Stewart Dickson retained the seat held by the party’s former leader Sean Neeson, who retired at this election.

Mr Wilson topped the poll with almost two quotas. The DUP maintained its three seats and early on in the count enjoyed a brief hope that the party might win a fourth seat.

However, voting transfer patterns ruled that out and the contest became a three-way battle between the UUP, Sinn Féin and the Alliance’s second candidate Gerardine Mulvenna, before she too was excluded.

Like other constituencies East Antrim’s turnout dropped from 53.5 per cent in 2007 to 47.76 per cent this time.