Dissident supporter wins seat as SDLP eclipsed in spiritual home

Independent election candidate Gary Donnelly at the Templemore Sports Complex in Londonderry
Independent election candidate Gary Donnelly at the Templemore Sports Complex in Londonderry

The fight for seats on the new council for Derry and Strabane will be remembered for three events.

Firstly, and most startlingly, this poll saw for the first time the eclipsing of the SDLP in what many refer to as its spiritual home.

When the newly amalgamated body sits for the first time next April, Sinn Fein will be the numerically superior political force – something that many would never have predicted and something that will have the upper and established echelons of the SDLP in Londonderry reeling in disbelief.

Secondly, the entire episode involving former SDLP councillor Jimmy Carr in the countdown to polling day definitely played a considerable part in rattling the already jangling nerves of the party in Londonderry.

Mr Carr was initially at the centre of an accusation surrounding messages detected on an iPad belonging to Derry City Council and used by representatives for council business.

He has vehemently denied any wrongdoing.

What followed is already well documented and led to the party, for whatever reasons, jettisoning their support for him hours before the polls opened.

Speaking on whether it affected the SDLP’s performance, Foyle MP Mark Durkan said: “Nobody can say it didn’t. When you have attacks on the party, headlines saying ‘dirty tricks’, of course things like that will affect public confidence.

“We are concerned by that.”

Mr Durkan said that the SDLP had taken the decision to put forward a number of fresh, young candidates for the new council, after being criticised in the past for not doing so. He added that such a move was always going to involve a certain amount of risk.

Speaking after the party failed to win a third seat in Ballyarnett, he said: “We appreciate the support we got and we respect the votes that have gone to others, not least some of the independents.

“It’s clear there were strong campaigns by independents on issues that mattered.

“We also have to take the message from the many people who didn’t vote and the reasons they gave us why.”

Thirdly, but highly significant, was the election of three independent candidates in Londonderry, most notably Gary Donnelly, a senior member of dissident republican organisation the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, who stood on an independent ticket.

The other two were Darren O’Reilly, a youth worker in the Rosemount area of the city, and Dermott ‘Dee’ Quigley who may well have profited from the demise of Jimmy Carr in the Ballyarnett DEA.

However, it is the election of Mr Donnelly that will cause background consternation to Sinn Fein.

In the past he has refused to condemn acts of dissident violence, and it remains a moot point as to whether or not his overt political connections to a dissident political grouping will permit him to sign a declaration for council that includes a commitment to no violence.

Sinn Fein outwardly congratulated Mr Donnelly at the count centre but they will no doubt examine how, within one election cycle, he doubled his vote and beat the former mayor, Kevin Campbell, to the top of the poll in a traditionally strong Sinn Fein area.

Speaking after his election on Saturday afternoon, Mr Donnelly said: “I think the fact that 50 per cent of the electorate did not go out to vote shows how disaffected the electorate have become.

“People are fed up of the party model of politics – and the independent model has been gaining popularity, particularly in the cityside.”

Yet, when the dust settles, this election will be remembered for the failure of the SDLP to hold onto its last remaining citadel.