From zero to hero as SDLP veteran Dolores Kelly reclaims her lost seat

The DUP'S Carla Lockhart at the count for Upper Bann

JUST when she was getting used to a private life, Dolores Kelly seems set for an unlikely return to front-line politics.

After failing to be returned in Upper Bann last May, the 57-year-old SDLP veteran slipped into relative obscurity, helped by a £65,000 resettlement payment and a winding-up allowance linked to the closure of her constituency office.

But she stood last night on the cusp of a shock return to Stormont, reclaiming the second nationalist seat from Sinn Féin after they'd taken two decades to wrest it from her.

"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.

When the Upper Bann count concludes, probably on Saturday, she should cross the line well ahead of Sinn Féin's second string runner Nuala Toman, leaving former education minister John O'Dowd as the party's lone flag carrier here.

That comes despite Sinn Féin increasing its share of the first preference vote to 27.7 per cent from 24.9 per cent in May, while Kelly polled just 9.9 per cent (albeit slightly up on May).

But she benefited 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).

Kelly, who spent the day surrounded by family and friends, including her most recent grandson one-year-old Liam Martin, admitted to being in "a state of disbelief".

The DUP, as expected, topped the poll via Carla Lockhart, who is being tipped as a future minister-in-waiting for her party. Her surplus comfortably helped bring newcomer Jonathan Buckley over the line.

They too added nearly two per cent to their vote haul from last May, easily riding the RHI storm which at one stage even threatened to engulf Lockhart.

And that left the UUP's effervescent Jo-Ann Dobson as another high-profile casualty as she was eliminated at the fourth stage, being outpolled by her running partner Doug Beattie.

The writing was on the wall from early morning for the Waringstown woman, who by 8pm hadn't even turned up at the count centre.

It marked an ignominious fall from grace for the now ex-health committee member, who was her party's choice to run in the last Westminster election and ran David Simpson reasonably close.

One of her close aides confided: "Sometimes you get unexpected outcomes and this will be a massive blow to Jo-Ann."

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