Belfast Telegraph

Mark Bain: Biggest story by Long way is the election of Naomi to Brussels seat

Jim Allister with the three MEPs, Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson, Alliance’s Naomi Long and the DUP’s Diane Dodds
Jim Allister with the three MEPs, Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson, Alliance’s Naomi Long and the DUP’s Diane Dodds
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

It was billed as a three-way battle for the third seat on the plane to Brussels, but it quickly became a foregone conclusion.

Expected front runners Martina Anderson (Sinn Fein) and Diane Dodds (DUP) polled as well as expected from the outset, but within an hour of the 8am count starting in Magherafelt it was clear another story was emerging.

Pile after pile of votes were allocated to Naomi Long and the eyebrows of even the most hardened election pundit, who may already have had the Alliance Party leader doing enough to take the third seat from the Ulster Unionists, were starting to rise at the scale of the achievement.

Alliance veteran and former leader David Ford stood quietly and watched, his smile growing wider with each pile of ballot papers moving in Mrs Long's direction.

Even at that early stage Mr Ford could sense something momentous was happening on the political scene.

"It's a sign of what we've seen in both European and council elections across the UK," he said early in the day.

"People are voting for parties which have a definite policy on Europe.

"We've been building momentum these last few years with solid results across Northern Ireland."

"We're having another good day so far and we'll have a good evening too.

"I'm smiling quite a lot."

A nod of acknowledgment from DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson signified that the race for the third seat was almost over before it had begun. "In fairness to the Alliance Party, they have a clear message and have done well," he said.

Very quickly, a first preference vote of over 100,000 looked inevitable, and so it proved.

Where there are winners, so there are losers, and the biggest on the day was the Ulster Unionist Party as veteran Danny Kennedy was swept away by the Alliance surge.

He was the first of the big guns to fall, in just the second count, as his bid to replace long-standing party MEP Jim Nicholson fell flat.

As he conceded it had been a disappointing day, the result appearing to herald the end of Mr Kennedy's political career.

"It's fair to say my days as an elected representative seem to be numbered," he admitted.

Dignified in defeat at the polls, party leader Robin Swann remained defiant that no obituaries should be written for his party yet.

"The Ulster Unionist Party isn't going away," he insisted.

"We know that narrative is already being put out there, but we're here to stay for a lot more elections to come."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood hung in a bit longer, remaining low-key, although the writing was on the wall from near the outset.

"If unionist votes weren't going to the UUP, they weren't going to go to us," he admitted.

In the end no one was going to get close to ruining Mrs Long's day and the expected three-way battle for the third seat became a one-horse race as two of the contenders barely got out of the starting gate.

While DUP leader Arlene Foster's wish for two unionist seats to be delivered didn't materialise, she still made the point that not much has changed.

"The UUP's Jim Nicholson voted as a Remainer so in that respect we still have two Remainers and one Leave in Europe," she said.

The problem for unionism, however, is that the Remainer in question now is the Alliance Party leader.

Sinn Fein and the DUP will both claim victories, one topping the poll and one first to be deemed elected, but the real winner on the day was a triumphant Naomi Long.

Belfast Telegraph


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