Tallymen have Sinn Fein’s Chris Hazzard ‘top in every box’ in South Down

Sinn Fein set for South Down return as Wells goes for a birdie

Candidates for the South Down constituency Colin McGrath for the SDLP, and Diane Forsythe, attend the count at the South Lake Leisure Centre in Craigavon. Both seem set to trail in Sinn Fein's wake. Picture: Oliver McVeigh/PA Wire (Oliver McVeigh/Oliver McVeigh/PA Wire)

Chris Hazzard said he was “hugely encouraged” as he looked certain to retain his South Down seat for Sinn Fein.

“We knew from the doors what we could expect on polling day, and thankfully it seems to have translated through,” he said.

And that was endorsed by a tallyman from a different party who told the Irish News: “There’s not a box I’ve seen opened yet that hasn’t Chris well ahead.”

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The SDLP had trimmed Sinn Fein’s majority to around 1,600 in 2019, and in Colin McGrath they had high hopes not just of closing that gap further, but of actually usurping the sitting MP.

By 1am, with all boxes verified, there was no white flag being raised by the SDLP, nor indeed by the DUP’s Diane Forsythe.

But the stacks of votes for the various candidates, even to untrained eyes, pointed to a Sinn Fein hold.

Diane Forsythe appeared to have polled well, and she should consolidate third place in the nine-strong field.

The smaller parties appeared to be struggling for numbers, and indeed it was barely 10.30pm when the veteran Jim Wells (67), running on a TUV ticket, conceded that he was beaten.

It was hardly a surprise that Wells’ return to front-line politics was scuppered - and it’s unlikely he’d even be around anyway when the declaration comes as he’s heading off from Ballycastle at 7am on a trip with friends to Mull Island to view a colony of sea eagles.

Andrew McMurray for Alliance and Michael O’Loan (UUP) will likely each do well to retain their party’s 13.9% and 6.2% shares respectively from five years ago.

For a good hour of the count Hannah Westropp, a parachuted-in paper candidate for the Conservatives, didn’t have a single vote in her box.

One did appear eventually - and she’s in the running for the ignominy of not just the lowest vote total in South Down, but possibly in the whole of the north.