Assembly Election Reflection.

Time is a strange thing. Sometimes we eagerly count down the days until a certain event occurs. We swear that it feels so very far away, but in what seems like a blink of an eye, the event in question has come and gone and we are left reminiscing in its wake. This surreal feeling of nostalgia and confusion at the rapid passage of time is how I feel now that the month of May, election season, has come and gone. As the summer recess ended, and Assembly business and discussion over the proposed Programme for Government gets underway, I find myself thinking about the election results which brought us to this moment.

We saw the best and worst of politics during this past election campaign. From bold pledges, fresh faces and strong debates to political sniping (especially on social media). From the highs and lows of campaigning and results, the electorate observed the candidates and voted accordingly, with surprises and shocks along the way. The political landscape in Northern Ireland may look to have simply replicated itself, but upon closer examination there is evidence of something different. Yes, the largest parties remain the same. Yes, there is still a problem with the declining Nationalist vote which Nationalist parties need to address. And yes, there is still the ongoing issue of electoral turnout. Still, I truly do feel that this election marked a change in Northern Irish politics: it has modernised, it has matured and it may just yet be on the step towards normalisation.

I had been eagerly awaiting the 5th May, as it marked my first time voting in the Assembly elections here in Northern Ireland. I could not wait until I exercised my right to vote, and cast my ballot for my chosen candidates in a day of democracy. The moment seemed to come upon me so very suddenly, and I remember driving with my parents to our local polling station knowing that unlike the past times when I had accompanied them, this time I would be taking part myself. It is hard as a young woman not to acknowledge how precious the right to vote is, and as I dropped my ballot into the generic black box, I felt a sense of satisfaction  knowing that irrespective of the outcome in my constituency and across the state, I had voted. I felt the same way last year during the General Election for Westminster, but this just felt a tad more important because it was an election for the Northern Ireland Assembly. This is an institution of devolution, a sign of normalisation and reconciliation post-Troubles and indeed a symbol of the end of Direct Rule.

Now, call me young and naive, but I feel that despite the problems which have bedevilled Stormont over the years, and for all the grumbles and complaints from the general public, it is our hub of democracy and transitional government. I truly believe that if the public became more engaged with the political system and availed of their elected representatives, and should said elected representatives be willing to listen and engage also, Stormont could achieve more than it ever has. I know a fair few who would submit that the Assembly is a mere talking-shop, and endless merry-go-round of crises and collapse, and we would simply be better off under Direct Rule once more. I could not disagree more. We are a proud people, and we are entitled to self-government. Dictation via barely-present scrutiny and accountability from Westminster should never be an aspiration. What better way to move towards reconciliation and ensure stability, peace and prosperity for all citizens than by a local power-sharing Assembly? Northern Ireland will not have a future as long as we stay too firmly rooted in our past, and one of the ways to work towards an inclusive and progressive future for all is through effective government and an engaged political system in Northern Ireland, not fragmented and sprawled across the Irish Sea.

Regular readers of my blog – and indeed, my Twitter – will be all too-aware of my interest in current affairs and politics. One of my friends quipped about what I would do without the Assembly election in my life during the weekend of the results. Whilst I do have rather the Assembly election-shaped hole in my heart, I am excited to see the outcome, and am intrigued to see how the new mandate progresses in light of new faces, an Opposition, and new parties present in Stormont. I have also been very fortunate in that during the election campaign and the subsequent aftermath, I have been able to give my opinion and thoughts not just here, but on local radio through my participation with the BBC Generation 2016 programme. I will write more on my BBC Generation 2016 activities and my thoughts on the Executive formation soon, but until then I thought it would be fitting to end this post with a touch of nostalgia by including some memories of the recent elections.

And I leave you with the a brilliant line from SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood regarding election results: “The people have spoken. We just need to figure out what they have said.”

Leah’s Highlights of the 2016 Assembly Election

  • Gerry Carroll (People Before Profit Alliance) polling an impressive 8,299 1st preference votes in Belfast West; a staggering 3,000 over the required quota and his nearest rival candidate.
  • My home constituency of South Antrim finally became competitive: Unionist candidates, generally the DUP, tend to be elected over quota and rather promptly from the first count. This year saw multiple counts – we went to seven – and no DUP candidate was elected on the first count. South Antrim also provided a nervous moment for Alliance supporters, as the Alliance party leader David Ford was forced to go the extra mile and wait until the sixth count to be re-elected. He had only polled 3,119 first preference votes. South Antrim could just be one to watch in 2021, when there will only be five and not six seats available per constituency.
  • Alex Attwood (SDLP) and Frank McCoubrey’s (DUP) deathmatch battle in Belfast West: a political nail-biter if there ever was one. Mr McCoubrey polled higher in first preferences (3,766 votes to Mr Attwood’s 2,647) and consistently led the incumbent Mr Attwood across eight stages of counting, increasing speculation the SDLP might just lose their sole Belfast West MLA. News broke after eleven o’clock in the evening that results night that Mr Attwood might just have edged out Mr McCoubrey with transfer votes. There was a call for a recount, but by half past eleven a weary and visibly relieved Mr Attwood was declared the victor. He won by just 89 votes. Interestingly enough, the SDLP candidate was helped over the finish line by 131 transfers… from Sinn Féin. (Gasp.) The lesson to be taken from Belfast West 2016? Every vote counts, hence the need to go out and cast your vote.
  • Eamonn McCann (People Before Profit Alliance) winning a Foyle seat after decades of political activism and contesting elections. He may have had to wait until the eighth and final stage of counting, but he made sure to make the most of his acceptance speech, bursting into a rendition of The Internationale, much to the bemusement of the other candidates.
  • The Foyle Fight: SDLP party leader Colum Eastwood v Sinn Féin heavyweight Martin McGuinness proved to be a juggernaut of a fight, with merely 37 first preferences votes difference between them after the first count. By the second count, there was only the one vote between them, with Mr McGuinness on 5,070 votes and Mr Eastwood on 5,069 votes. Both were elected on the seventh count. Both parties failed to gain three seats in the constituency: despite Foyle being a stronghold for the SDLP and despite Sinn Féin’s decision to move the deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness from Mid Ulster to his native Derry. It failed to work, with previously co-opted Sinn Féin candidate Maeve McLauglin losing her seat.
  • John McCallister (Independent, Unionist) conceding in South Down before it was revealed he had been eliminated on the first count. He had resigned from the UUP to join Basil McCrea in the ill-fated NI21 new party venture, before becoming an Independent Unionist. He leaves behind a legacy in the form of the Official Opposition Act for the Assembly, which has since been utilised by both the UUP and the SDLP.
  • Upper Bann illustrating the importance of votes and effectively utilising the STV system: where do I even begin with this one. Carla Lockhart (DUP) topped the poll with 7,993 first preference votes when the quota was 6,527 votes. She was soon joined by fellow party candidate Sydney Anderson, who gained 6,195 votes and was elected on the second count. However,the battle for the remaining four seats was both tight and lengthy, spanning two days: Friday leading into late Saturday. Jo-Anne Dobson (UUP) had to wait until stage 9 to be elected to fill the third seat, but it proved to be a tense battle for the final three seats between John ‘O Dowd and Catherine Seeley (both Sinn Féin), Dolores Kelly (SDLP), and Doug Beattie (UUP). The counting dragged on into Saturday afternoon, with the rumour mill generating furiously in relation to whether or not incumbent Mrs Kelly would lose her seat, or would fellow incumbent and past-Education Minister Mr O’Dowd lose his. Mr Beattie was declared the victor for the fourth seat; despite polling the fewest first preferences out of the four (2,969) he proved to be a transfer-friendly candidate and was elected on the 11th count. After difficult and complex mathematics, including considering transfers and surplus votes, it emerged that Mr O’Dowd and Ms Seeley made it across the finishing line. Mrs Kelly, who came sixth in terms of first preferences (4,335) came seventh overall, proving that in a STV-election, first preferences alone cannot guarantee a seat. 

  • On that note – the hashtag #WaitingforUpperBann was a hoot: it was an apt comparison to draw between Beckett’s fabulous play, ‘Waiting for Godot’ and the Upper Bann count. The play is classified as the ‘theatre of the absurd’ which frankly was how the count felt at times.
  • Emma Little-Pengelly (DUP) winning the grudge match v Ruth Patterson (Independent Unionist) in Belfast South: now this was branded as a battle of the grudge. Ms Patterson had been a DUP Councillor, but was expelled from the party after she lambasted the party leadership for parachuting Emma Little-Pengelly into an Assembly seat in that constituency. Moreover, she argued the party was increasingly becoming elitist, and out of touch with grassroots. Having previously said she was considering resigning from the DUP and running as a TUV candidate in South Belfast in the May election, she ultimately opted to run as an Independent Unionist. Mrs Little-Pengelly, a trained barrister, had been a special adviser to then-First Minister Peter Robinson when she was co-opted by the DUP leadership into the Assembly in 2015 – with local councillors Ruth Patterson and Christopher Stalford overlooked at that time. Ms Patterson called Mrs Little-Pengelly “a well-paid blow-in”, and so the battle for Belfast South commenced. Her supporters believed she could snatch the final sixth seat, whilst Mr Stalford was Little Pengelly’s running-mate with only one DUP seat guaranteed. The battle raged during the campaign, with Ms Patterson voicing suggestions that Mrs Little-Pengelly changed her name to appear higher on the ballot paper. Come results night, the battle concluded with Ms Patterson only managing to secure just 475 first preference votes compared to her rival’s 4,511. She then declared she would retire from politics when her councillor term ends in 2019.
  • Joe Boyle coming painfully close in Strangford: Poor Joe Boyle. In his fourth consecutive attempt at an Assembly seat, the Ards and North Down councillor – who came within 31 votes of acquiring a seat in the 2007 Assembly election – suffered another agonising defeat in the race for the final seat. After receiving 2,724 first preference votes, Mr Boyle narrowly lost out on the sixth and final seat to the UUP’S Philip Smith. Mr Boyle found the sympathy for his loss rather staggering: comparing the atmosphere to that of a wake house, he said “I had to tell people it was an election, that nobody had died here.”
  • Jim Wells needing ID and his wife denied entry to the polling station in South Down: it was rather the shambles in the South Down count centre for the former DUP Health Minister. Starting the day in headline- grabbing form, Mr Wells was initially denied entry to the Lagan Valley LeisurePlex count centre for failing to bring identification. Then, his wife Grace was also denied entry because he did not bring proof with him that they were a married couple. Mr Wells was the first candidate to be elected, after receiving 5,033 first preferences and deemed elected on the third count. But he was angry with the manner in which he received this news, saying it was “absolutely outrageous” that his wife had to wait outside.
  • Karen McKevitt and the Constituency Coup that wasn’t: Mrs McKevitt, known for her campaign to install defibrillators across NI, had been a South Down MLA, but she contested a seat in her native Newry and Armagh instead of seeking re-election in South Down. She had made a public statement in October 2015 that she would not contest South Down, and said she was considering quitting public life altogether. By December 2015, she alongside Justin McNulty had received the SDLP’s nomination for Newry and Armagh. The daughter of former SDLP MLA PJ Bradley, Sinead, ended up standing in South Down in her stead, topping the poll on results day. Mr McNulty was elected on the ninth count, and took the final seat as Mrs McKevitt was eliminated on the very same count.
  • The Wild Wild West Tyrone: this constituency saw another political grudge match, namely Daniel McCrossan (SDLP) holding his own versus former SDLP members. They had resigned from the party, mostly as a protest due to the party selecting Mr McCrossan as its candidate for the election. Mr McCrossan had been recently co-opted into the Assembly, and sought to contest the seat in an election. Around ten office-holders and party members resigned in total, some of which decided to stand as independents in the constituency. In short, it was another case of election blues for the SDLP in the constituency: despite winning two seats in the first post Good Friday Agreement Assembly elections in 1998 it has struggled since. Until 2016. For Mr McCrossan held the seat for the party, receiving 4,287 first preferences and was elected on the eighth count. The closest an ex-SDLP party member came was Josephine Deehan, who received 1,778 first preferences.
  • Just Twitter Problems: Jimmy Menagh being ‘elected’ when actually eliminated in Strangford: for those eagle-eyed Twitter users, there was a moment of confused hilarity when several election accounts informed us that Jimmy Menagh, an Independent, was elected. They subsequently had to post a clarification, saying that he actually had been eliminated on the eighth count.
  • A Tale of Selection: Michelle Gildernew, a popular, stalwart Sinn Féin politician had a bit of a confusing start to her campaign. The former MP was initially selected to contest the constituency, alongside sitting MLA Seán Lynch and local councillor John Feely. However, she was replaced on the ticket by the then-current MLA, Phil Flanagan, who missed out on selection at a previous selection convention, after the party’s Ard Comhairle issued a revote. The party ultimately decided to run four candidates in the constituency, having held three seats. Mrs Gildernew received 6,614 first preferences, second only to Arlene Foster (DUP), and was successfully elected. Mr Lynch was successfully re-elected, but Mr Flanagan and Mr Feely were eliminated on the seventh and fourth counts respectively.
  • Whose Preference Vote is it, anyway?: One of my personal favourite moments from the May election was the weird and wonderful voting patterns brought about by the voting system. I wasn’t the only one. Two Sinn Féin candidates, Chris Hazzard (South Down; now Minister for Infrastructure in the Executive) and Daithí McKay (North Antrim; stood down in August 2016) tweeted their amusement at having gaining transfers from eliminated TUV and UKIP candidates in their constituencies. Yes: unionist, conservative candidates had votes transferred to republican candidates upon their elimination. May STV never change.
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