Belfast Telegraph

South Down: Jim Wells hails 'make or break' victory, but slams count centre lockout for his wife

By Allan Preston

There can be no doubt the South Down count became the Jim Wells show.

Starting the day in headline- grabbing form, the former DUP Health Minister was initially denied entry to the Lagan Valley LeisurePlex count centre for failing to bring identification.

His frustration with Electoral Office staff soon rocketed after his wife Grace - who has suffered multiple strokes - was also denied entry because he did not bring proof with him that they were a married couple.

Despite finishing in a convincing first place in the poll, Mr Wells said it was "absolutely outrageous" that his wife had to wait outside while he received the news of his victory.

Mr Wells admitted the election was make or break for his career after a difficult 15 months. In that time he resigned his portfolio as Health Minister, was accused of making homophobic remarks in public, as well as dealing with the stress of seriously ill family members.

In his victory speech he said: "This time last year was one of the darkest days of my life, the election count for Westminster was held, and as many of you knew, I was going through a wide range of personal and professional tragedies.

"I went through the most difficult year of my life by far. Therefore it gives me the greatest pleasure to be the first person elected here."

Independent candidate John McCallister, formerly of the Ulster Unionists and the defunct NI21, suffered one of the most crushing defeats, polling only 1,156 first preferences.

Mr Wells insisted he had lost for his liberal stance on gay marriage and abortion, something he called "toxic" for voters in South Down. The next elected MLA was Ulster Unionist Harold McKee, who made it home on the fifth count.

Sinn Fein's Chris Hazzard and Caitriona Ruane both held on to their seats.

Ms Ruane received huge applause and was promptly congratulated by her supporters and lifted on their shoulders. Two SDLP MLAs were also elected for South Down for the first time, Sinead Bradley and Colin McGrath, but with their party colleague Sean Rogers losing his seat.

Ms Bradley celebrated with her husband, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, and who had also been denied entry to the count centre earlier in the day.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, she said: "I'm feeling a little overwhelmed. It's been a very long day for everyone. I would be hopeful that this Assembly will re-engage people.

"I found people felt the last Assembly was less relevant in their lives. I want to listen to the real issues out there."

Commenting on Mr Wells being returned, she said: "I was so focused on my own campaign that I hadn't dwelt on it for very long.

"But it's good to see him back after a tough time and I wish him well."

Belfast Telegraph


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