Assembly Election

Sinn Fein play waiting game to end Dolores Kelly's political career in Upper Bann

SDLP's Dolores Kelly lost her seat in Upper Bann to possibly signal the end of her political career. Picture by Mal McCann

SINN Féin finally achieved their long-set objective on Saturday of wresting the Upper Bann seat away from Dolores Kelly - and effectively end the former SDLP deputy leader's 23-year political career.

But even by the standards set in past election counts in this two-thirds unionist-controlled constituency, there was an excruciatingly long wait until both John O’Dowd and Catherine Seeley knew for sure they'd been going to Stormont.

Both were returned short of the quota at the end of a marathon count session which lasted 14 hours on Friday and nearly another eight on Saturday, with the final declaration coming long after every other constituency has been done and dusted.

It didn't matter, though, that outgoing education minister O'Dowd - who'd topped the poll in Upper Bann in 2011 with 17 per cent of the vote - was officially the 108th and last of the MLAs returned.

For a long time his seat had looked under threat, and he even admitted as much in media interviews on Saturday as the painstaking count dragged on interminably.

But in the end, he had 168 votes to spare over the popular SDLP veteran, who added almost 1,000 votes on transfers to her first preference total of 4,335, while O'Dowd's 5,209 vote was only boosted by another 268.

“They said two Sinn Féin candidates being returned in Upper Bann was impossible, but we made it possible,” a jubilant O’Dowd said.

For Kelly, who’s been central to the SDLP since 1993, she said she was “absolutely gutted” and would take time with her family to reflect on what comes next.

At one stage on Saturday afternoon she left the count centre seemingly having raised the white flag, but claimed she'd "just been to Tesco for some Sudafed and a cup of tea".

Catherine Seeley, who was 950 first-preferences ahead of O'Dowd, is one of three female MLAs returned from Upper Bann, but as a consequence won't now be taking up the role as mayor of Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council (it's Sinn Féin's turn in 2016/17).

Topping the poll was DUP golden girl and social media darling Carla Lockhart, who first dipped her toe into politics nine years ago when co-opted on to Craigavon Council at the age of just 22, seems destined for big things.

"I've been interested in politics since I was about five. I eat, sleep and breathe it, and see myself very much as part of Arlene's team and sharing her vision," she said.

"It was a shock to top the poll in my first attempt standing for the Assembly, and I will repay everybody by representing them to the best of my ability."

Her party colleague Sydney Anderson was re-elected after the second round of counting at 7.40pm on Friday, but the rest of the field had to wait until nearly 2pm on Saturday for the UUP's sitting member Jo-Anne Dobson to be formally returned.

Dobson was later joined - eventually - by running mate and former soldier Doug Beattie, who wasn’t at the count because he was attending the funeral of his 15-month-old grandson.

That left Seeley and O’Dowd to be deemed elected without a quota at the expense of Kelly (whose vote had fallen to below 10 per cent).

During the acceptance speeches, which were conducted in a spirit of bonhomie unlike previous declarations in Upper Bann, each of the successful candidates paid emotional tributes to Mr Beattie on his tragic bereavement.

Elected: Carla Lockhart (DUP), Sydney Anderson (DUP), Jo-Anne Dobson (UUP), Doug Beattie (UUP), Catherine Seeley (SF), John O'Dowd (SF)

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