As Upper Bann’s slow-coach Assembly election count was suspended overnight, it emerged that outgoing Sinn Fein Education Minister John O’Dowd is facing a battle to retain his seat.
Mr O’Dowd – along with sitting member Delores Kelly (SDLP) and Doug Beattie (UUP) – were left vulnerable in the scramble for the sixth and final place, with the count resuming on Saturday morning.
Only two had made it to Stormont when the count was placed on ice – DUP’s Carla Lockhart on the first count and her colleague Sydney Anderson who benefitted from her 1,466 surplus.
Ms Lockhart, who romped home on 7,993 first preferences on a 6,527 quota, predicted that Mr Beattie would make it on transfers from the plethora of minor unionist parties about to be eliminated. But she also predicted a “to-the-wire” scrap between Mr O’Dowd and Mrs Kelly, even though Mr O’Dowd was 800 votes ahead.
“There was an 800-vote swing in 2011,” said the victorious Mrs Lockhart. “Dolores was 400 behind Johnny McGibbon (SF) at one stage and went through to make it home by 400 votes. It’s by no means over in this painfully slow count.”
Mrs Kelly said, “It will be a cliff hanger. I have by no means given up. The vagaries of PR have made the Upper Bann sixth seat so unpredictable. I’m hopeful.”
The UUP’s Jo-Anne Dobson – who gained the party’s most preferences in Northern Ireland (5,155) - said she was extremely confident of Beattie winning through, “but I just can’t read the sixth seat – that 800-vote swing last time makes this one intriguing. Transfers will decide it, and votes from Alliance and the unionists could see Dolores home as long as she doesn’t stay too far behind John O’Dowd.”
O’Dowd’s running partner Catherine Seeley will make it after 6,164 first preference, against the outgoing Minister’s 5,209.Neither was willing to comment. Ms Seeley said, “I’ll talk to you after the final count”, while O’Dowd’s reaction was much the same.
Mrs Lockhart’s election finally came at 5.30pm, more than eight hours after the verification started, with Mr Anderson following at 6.30pm. The slow count was exacerbated when votes had to be re-examined after they failed to tally.
The bottom four – Emma Hutchinson (Labour), Ian Nickels (Conservative), Stephen McCarroll (Independent) and Simon Lee (Green) - were eliminated by the close of play.