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Suspended DUP member Jonathan Bell fails to retain Stormont seat in Strangford

Simon Hamilton with his wife Nicki outside the hall at the Ards and North Down 2017 Northern Ireland assembly election in Bangor. Picture by Bill Smyth

SUSPENDED DUP member Jonathan Bell failed to retain his Assembly seat in Strangford, as the former enterprise minister crashed out of the race without inflicting serious damage on his former comrades.

In another reversal of fortunes from last May, Mike Nesbitt – who resigned as Ulster Unionist leader shortly after being returned as an MLA - finished in fourth place, having topped the poll in the constituency last time out.

In one of the most eagerly anticipated and unpredictable battles of this election, Mr Bell, Mr Nesbitt and three former DUP ministers went head to head.

With turnout increasing by 11 per cent from May, the quota was duly raised to 6,465.

It took four counts to get the first MLA elected, with Alliance’s Kellie Armstrong securing the first seat with transfers and 15 per cent of the vote, a four per cent increase.

Ms Armstrong said: “A lot of new members and volunteers joined the Alliance campaign, believing in the vision outlined by Naomi’s leadership.

“Strangford is considered a unionist bastion and yet Alliance has taken the first seat.”

Mr Bell, standing as an independent, polled just under 1,500 first preference votes and his hopes of retaining his seat were declared over at the seventh count.

It was the DUP who were left smiling as Mr Bell was brushed off and the electorate backed its three candidates with almost 40 per cent of the first preference votes.

Despite increasing his personal vote, Mike Nesbitt trailed both Simon Hamilton, who topped the poll, and Michelle McIlveen of the DUP.

The DUP benefited from the gradual eliminations of other unionist candidates, with Simon Hamilton first to be pushed over the line.

Mr Hamilton, the former economy minister, said that voters had sent a “clear message” that they wanted a return to devolution and an Executive “working for them.”

Ms McIlveen and Mr Nesbitt eventually made it back to Stormont on the ninth count.

However, Peter Weir, the former education minister, who had left behind a relatively safe seat in North Down, was in a precarious position for much of the evening and required several stages of transfers to eventually retain his place at Stormont.

Completing a miserable night for the Ulster Unionists, the party’s second candidate, Philip Smith, who nipped into the sixth seat at the death last May, was eliminated after polling much lower than Mr Nesbitt and the three DUP candidates.

Meanwhile, SDLP Ards and North Down councillor Joe Boyle, who was making his fifth consecutive attempt at an Assembly seat, polled over 3,000 votes and overtook Mr Weir for a period, but was yet again pipped at the wire.

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