Upper Bann: Epic comeback for SDLP's Dolores Kelly as UUP's Jo-Anne Dobson is usurped
ON a dramatic day when ballot-box losers hogged the headlines, the SDLP's Dolores Kelly completed a political comeback of quite epic proportions - just as she was getting used to having her private life back.
After failing to be returned in Upper Bann last May, the 57-year-old veteran slipped into relative obscurity, the blow somewhat softened by a £65,000 resettlement payment and a winding-up allowance linked to the closure of her constituency office in Lurgan (now a ladies' clothes shop and cafe).
Ms Kelly, with 5,127 first preferences, secured a shock return to Stormont, reclaiming the second nationalist seat from Sinn Féin, who kept warm for just nine months.
"It's quite incredible that an election which should never have been called in the first place has suddenly given me this unexpected opportunity, and I'm thrilled that my voters have kept the faith," she said.
Ms Kelly said her heart went out to those who didn't make the cut in an election she claims has "polarised our society".
She said: "After 40 years in a job, I found myself out of work last May. That was tough. It was soul-destroying. So I know how they feel."
Ms Kelly benefitted from a huge transfer from Alliance's Tara Doyle (who nearly doubled the party's vote from last year's runner Harry Hamilton, despite her not even living the in the constituency and being largely invisible on the campaign trail) to cross the line well ahead of Sinn Féin's second runner Nuala Toman.
That left former education minister John O'Dowd as his party's lone flag carrier, which came despite Sinn Féin increasing its share of the first preference vote to 27.7 per cent from 24.9 per cent in May.
The DUP, as expected, topped the poll via Carla Lockhart, who is being tipped as a future minister-in-waiting for her party.
Their overall vote was up two per cent from May, and her surplus comfortably helped bring newcomer Jonathan Buckley over the line.
At 25 he'll be the youngest MLA in the new mandate, and he promised fresh thinking to match his fresh face.
Despite running only two candidates this time instead of three historically, the UUP's vote declined, and that spelt a political farewell for Jo-Anne Dobson, eliminated at the fourth stage.
But her running partner Doug Beattie insisted "we haven't seen the last of Jo-Anne, who has been a first class MLA and a towering servant to the community".
In an emotional declaration speech he dedicated his election to his late 15-month-old grandson Cameron, who died during the May hustings and who was buried on the day of that count.
Former soldier Beattie also paid tribute to resigning party leader Mike Nesbitt, who he described as "a good friend who supported me and brought me into politics".
But he categorically ruled himself out of being part of any future UUP leadership team.