South Down: Margaret Ritchie is forced to a standstill by Hazzard
First MP from Sinn Féin elected for South Down
Sinn Féin’s Chris Hazzard celebrates at the Eikon Exhibition Centre in Lisburn. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA
Sinn Féin’s Chris Hazzard stole a sensational victory from under the nose of nationalist rival Margaret Ritchie on Friday morning to become the first ever MP from his party to be elected for South Down.
Speculation had been rife heading into the contest that Sinn Féin would close the enduring gap between it and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in the constituency, but early signs were tentative with both parties and punters alike unwilling to call a winner.
However, as the night wore on the odds began to look ever more stark for incumbent MP and former SDLP leader Ms Ritchie, especially in light of news that she had underperformed in her own backyard of Downpatrick.
There was little lingering doubt by the time of the announcement as Ms Ritchie and party colleagues looked on ashen-faced as sitting MLA Mr Hazzard revelled in a vote of over 20,000 – some 2,500 clear of his nearest rival.
He dedicated the victory to previous unsuccessful Sinn Féin candidates for the seat, as well as recently deceased friend Vincent McDonald, and called it an historic election.
“We are now entering a new era in South Down; it’s an historic election. This is the first time a republican has ever been elected as MP for South Down. And while I’m honoured and entirely privileged that it is me, I am entirely aware that I am standing on the shoulders of heroes,” he said.
The clamour for people to have their voices heard in a particularly tight race was reflected on turnout figures which were up 10 percentage points compared with the last Westminster election in 2015, far outstripping the average rise in turnout experienced across Northern Ireland.
A defiant Ms Ritchie promised the South Down electorate that they had not heard the last of her, and proceeded to take a subtle swipe at Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy during her speech on the night.
“It is quite obvious that Brexit has changed the political landscape and there are many lessons to be learned from that. But I would also say to you that I haven’t gone away because I am going to live and fight for another day, because that is the message I want to give to the people,” she said.
“The people of South Down also want service and representation, they want that delivery, and they want delivery here in the constituency but also in parliament because that is clearly the test that was set to us at the doors,” she added.
First-time election candidate Diane Forsythe performed creditably for the Democratic Unionist Party with a share of nearly 9,000 votes, while the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance lagged considerably behind.
Previous Westminster elections
2010 – Margaret Ritchie (SDLP) defeated Sinn Féin’s Caitríona Ruane (20,648 votes to 12,236).
2015 – Ms Ritchie beat Sinn Féin’s Chris Hazzard (18,077 to 12,186).