Belfast Telegraph

Ritchie vows to return after painful defeat

By John Mulgrew

Many tears were shed in a packed count centre as Margaret Ritchie vowed she "hasn't gone away" despite losing her once safe South Down seat to Sinn Fein's Chris Hazzard.

The SDLP defeat here, along with losses in South Belfast and Foyle, made for a depressing election night for the party.

Ms Ritchie, addressing the dozens packed around the stage as she delivered her farewell speech, said it was a "sad day" for the SDLP.

"The result was not one that we would have hoped for, but I can say that I and my colleagues have helped many, many people in South Down. I can say, in that respect, that I can hold my head high."

The party stalwart made an emotional farewell, as Mr Hazzard secured victory with a majority of more than 2,000, securing 20,328 votes.

Ms Ritchie polled 17,882, down from 18,077 in 2015. Overall turnout rose to 67.49%.

"I haven't gone away, because I am going to live and fight for another day," she said.

"That is the message I want to give to the people."

She said the electorate of South Down not only want representation on the ground, but at Westminster.

The win for Sinn Fein came after a tremendous success in March's Assembly elections in this constituency, with the party securing two MLAs, and almost 40% of the total vote.

Mr Hazzard "praised" and "thanked" Ms Ritchie for a "lifetime of public service".

"It's historic and the first time Sinn Fein have ever won the MP seat in South Down. We live in a different era, and you can see that right across the board," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"People tried to make an issue out of abstentionism - Sinn Fein have wiped the board. People want to see real representation, that doesn't mean it's London, Dublin, Brussels, or wherever that may be.

"There are big challenges in South Down. Brexit is huge for us as a border community.

"There is no two ways about it, Margaret has been a tireless worker, a public servant. There is no short cut in politics, hard work is always rewarded. I'm young, I'm only 32 and I have plenty of years ahead of me."

Speaking about the Sinn Fein gains across Northern Ireland, which saw the party take three fresh seats, he said: "I think it's because we have shown strong leadership, dynamic leadership. We have seen people rally to our call like never before."

Asked whether claims the party could look at taking their seats at Westminster, he said "absolutely not".

"I got elected because I don't take my seat, and it's the same for all Sinn Fein MPs. That's the situation."

Meanwhile, fresh DUP candidate Diane Forsythe managed to increase her party's share of the vote by 9.3% - taking almost 9,000 votes.

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