Sinn Fein celebrates historic victory in Northern Ireland

Vice President Michelle O'Neill said the victory 'ushers in a new era' for Northern Ireland

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Sinn Fein celebrated on Saturday night as the other parties shivered.

Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill, the leaders of Sinn Fein, could rest safe in the knowledge that history had been made.

In the Magherafelt count centre earlier, the pair had been feted by supporters as they arrived to claim victory in the Northern Ireland Assembly election.

Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill, party leader Mary Louise McDonald and party candidate Emma Sheerin celebrate, after Sinn Fein were voted as the largest party in Northern Ireland, at the Meadowbank Sports Arena count centre, in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland
Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill, party leader Mary Louise McDonald and party candidate Emma Sheerin celebrate, after Sinn Fein were voted as the largest party in Northern Ireland, at the Meadowbank Sports Arena count centre, in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and UUP leader Doug Beattie, by contrast, found themselves in a cold corner of the same room, flanking a single candidate each.

Candidates could have been forgiven for being forlorn in the Foyle constituency even before counting had began.

Dark predictions of a long and complex count had dominated the days before the poll.

Those fears, albeit not all the predictions, came to pass as a handful of candidates, a couple of party leaders and a smattering of supporters waited in the ever-colder count centre on Saturday night.

Candidates were shed, votes were transferred and coats were grabbed from the backs of chairs.

As count staff across Northern Ireland went home on Saturday evening, work continued in a small corner of the Meadowbank Sports Arena.

Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill, party leader Mary Louise McDonald and party candidates Emma Sheerin and Linda Dillon celebrate, after Sinn Fein were voted as the largest party in Northern Ireland, at the Meadowbank Sports Arena count centre, in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland
Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill, party leader Mary Louise McDonald and party candidates Emma Sheerin and Linda Dillon celebrate, after Sinn Fein were voted as the largest party in Northern Ireland, at the Meadowbank Sports Arena count centre, in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland

Rumours flew among the dwindling onlookers that the count could go into Sunday.

Sir Jeffrey spent time pacing the hall alongside DUP candidate Gary Middleton.

Later, he sat at table waiting – like everyone else – for it all to end.

Mr Beattie, meanwhile, watched carefully to see if Ryan McCready would deliver the party some much-needed good news after an underwhelming election.

Later, the pair shared jokes and stories at a table claimed hours earlier by the Ulster Unionists.

Mr Beattie had managed earlier to snatch a seat in Upper Bann against all expectations. He had hoped that Mr McCready, a former Royal Irish Regiment soldier and DUP councillor, could do the same in Foyle.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson at the Meadowlands Arena, Magherafelt
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson at the Meadowlands Arena, Magherafelt

The SDLP were perhaps in the strangest position of all, having had Mark H Durkan elected there hours earlier.

The decision to run three candidates, with former mayor Brian Tierney contesting the seat alongside incumbent MLA Sinead McLaughlin, in the end only served to stretch out the already-protracted count.

As early as Friday afternoon, the party had acknowledged that three seats in the constituency had proved too ambitious as Sinn Fein outperformed expectations to comfortably take two seats for Padraig Delargy and Ciara Ferguson.

Ms McLaughlin, speaking after her eventual election, said: “It was a very difficult context in which the election was run.

“And you have to accept the people were feeling very, very nervous. The DUP called it. They set the context. It was very, very negative.”

“My heart’s broke”, she said, when asked about the party’s losses over the last two days.

“We’ve got to sit around and regroup and rethink how we can actually plug those losses.”

People Before Profit’s Shaun Harkin, who had been in the hunt for the final seat, left with his team around 11pm looking pleased with his performance despite the defeat.

“I’m exhausted right now,” he said.

“Our whole team has been absolutely fantastic. And they kept things going. And we’re very, very spirited.

“Nobody’s really down. We’ve had a long campaign, we put a lot into it. And, you know, we gave it everything.”

As Saturday turned into Sunday, the hall continued to empty and attention focused squarely on the race between Middleton and McCready.

Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill speaks at the Meadowbank Sports Arena count centre, in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland
Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill speaks at the Meadowbank Sports Arena count centre, in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland

Both teams circled as counting staff continued working amid dropping temperatures.

Shortly before 1am, Mr McCready shared a quick handshake with Mr Middleton and walked briskly from the room.

He was to be followed shortly after by his party leader.

Confirmation soon followed that Mr McCready had accepted he could not win, with a margin of 96 votes eventually confirmed between the two candidates.

In his victory speech, Mr Middleton wished the room a “good morning”.

Alone on the stage, with every other new MLA in Foyle at home or in bed, he shared a message with a gaggle of supporters after a long, difficult election for the DUP.

“I am delighted to have secured the unionist seat in Foyle. Obviously it was a tight run.

“We always knew it was going to be tight.”

He said that voters “want unionists to work together”.

“They want unionists to set aside whatever issues they have on the night and get behind the cause we really want to secure and that’s the United Kingdom and that’s the Union.”