Stangford: Jonathan Bell out; Mike Nesbitt resigns as UU leader

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

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

In another reversal of fortunes from last May, the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt finished in fourth place, after topping 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.

With media camped en masse at the Aurora Leisure Centre in Bangor awaiting his arrival, Mr Bell, who has been at the centre of a row with DUP leader Arlene Foster over the botched RHI scheme, was nowhere to be seen at the 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 vote.

Despite increasing his personal vote, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt trailed both Simon Hamilton 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.

Miss 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 and was lagging well behind his party colleagues.

The UUP’s second candidate, Philip Smith, who nipped into the sixth seat at the death last May, is again left in danger after polling much lower than Mr Nesbitt and the three DUP candidates.

Meanwhile, SDLP Ards and North Down councillor Joe Boyle, who is making his fifth consecutive attempt at an Assembly seat, polled over 3,000 votes and has overtaken Mr Weir, but remained in a three way dog fight for the final seat.

Mr Boyle told The Irish News: “If I had polled what I did today ten months ago I would probably be an MLA defending my seat.

“However, I am not in the position of 18 others who will be out of a job. Whatever happens here, I will go home as a councillor and as a businessman.”

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