Election night at the Belfast Titanic count. 6 seats being counted including 3 nail-biting marginals: Belfast North, East and South. I was in the middle of it as a stringer for the BBC and here’s what happened on the night.
10pm. Everyone glued to Twitter. Refreshing news feeds. Waiting for the exit poll. The result would be crucial. A hung parliament could put the focus onto the battleground seats in Northern Ireland. Alas, no such result – however, the excitement on the night certainly didn’t end when Big Ben struck 10.
It was almost 11pm when the boxes arrived in their droves and were verified – far from the speedy activity of counters in Newcastle who managed to declare before 11:30. Also declaring early, Blyth Valley – the traditional Labour stronghold. The working-class seat which had been red since its creation in 1950, miraculously turned Tory blue.
Back in the hall, scrums of party talliers crowded round the verification tables, looking out for precious votes. Excited whispers, but no official results.
The first announcements from returning officers concerned turnout. Overall, turnout in Northern Ireland came to 62.1% - 3.5% down from the 2017 poll. Not too bad a figure considering discontent with Northern Ireland politics, as well as the wet, cold December day.
The first cheers on the night came from the Alliance huddle. A highly impressive win for them at the Bangor count, with Stephen Farry being elected to North Down. The seat was previously held by the sole Northern Irish Remainer in the Commons, the independent Lady Sylvia Hermon – once, a UUP MP.
An alien to Northern Irish politics would therefore expect a UUP victory, and for good reason. Its constituency with a soft, unionist base – perfect breeding ground for the UUP, once upon a time anyway.
However, this race was presented as a two-horse race between Farry, the deputy Alliance leader, and Alex Easton of DUP who had increased his vote by 6,500 between 2015 and 2017.
In the end, Alex Easton lost out as part of the wider Alliance surge seen in recent polls. Stephen Farry took the seat by almost 3,000 votes. Meanwhile the UUP lagged over 13,000 votes behind the winner.
The first result back at Titanic was hardly a surprising one. Belfast West, a Sinn Féin stronghold. Whilst Paul Maskey easily held the seat once held by Gerry Adams, he lost almost 13% of his previous vote. People Before Profit and Alliance both increased their vote, with Aontú achieving an impressive 1,635 votes for their first time contesting the seat.
Neighbouring Belfast North was next. An intense battle with pacts and agreements aplenty, this eventually hollowed out the ballot paper to just three candidates: the DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance. Here, the DUP Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, was at risk after a vociferous campaign with intense media interest both locally and nationally.
The media scrum intensified in the hall. Nigel Dodds surrounded by leader Arlene Foster, his wife, Diane Dodds MEP, and his Belfast South colleague, Emma Little Pengelly, obviously nervous looking about her upcoming result. Meanwhile Sinn Féin’s John Finuance was surrounded by Sinn Féin leader, Mary-Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill, her Northern deputy.
The result? A Sinn Féin win, a united Remain voice against the DUP and their Brexit policy. And a comprehensive win – no need for a recount when you win by almost 2,000 votes.
Belfast North was only the first battleground to declare in Belfast. Next up was Belfast East. Once again, a hollowed-out field of three candidates from the DUP, Alliance and the UUP. Could the popular Naomi Long regain the seat she famously won off Peter Robinson in 2010? They had performed well in all the seats declared so far, including a 14% increase in Strangford.
The declaration came. An 8.2% increase for Naomi Long but still 1,819 votes off Gavin Robinson. Regardless, the DUP once again saw their vote decrease by 6.6%, following the trend of other seats of the night.
Before Belfast South declared, the safe seat of East Antrim was to be announced. A win for Sammy Wilson, with Alliance in second place with another large 11.7% increase. In five years time, at the next election, these seats could swing to Alliance if their surge continues.
South Down was the second to last declaration at the count. Once a stronghold of the SDLP with Margaret Ritchie, who now holds a House of Lords seat. Whilst Sinn Féin won the seat, the margin between them and SDLP was tighter than expected – only 1,620 votes. Maybe a more well-known candidate than SDLP Councillor Michael Savage could have rallied up a win.
The final seat of the night was at almost 3:45am – Belfast South. Originally tipped as a three-way marginal between Emma Little Pengelly of the DUP, with Remain supporting Claire Hanna of the SDLP and Paula Bradshaw of Alliance not far behind.
The SDLP had the distinct advantage of Sinn Féin and the Green party standing aside, endorsing Hanna’s campaign. 'It’s Claire Hanna’s to lose,' would be an appropriate summary of the campaign.
There were clear whispers in the hall of a buoyant SDLP, encouraged by positive returns in South Down. Predictions of a couple of thousand majority? The rumours spread excitedly.
No whispers, predictions or rumours would prepare anyone for this result. A colossal win for Claire Hanna with an incredible 27,079 votes. With 48%, Hanna’s is the biggest majority of any Northern Irish MP, an accolade previously held by Ian Paisley Jr in 2017. The DUP’s vote in Belfast South lowered slightly, whilst Alliance also faltered at the expense of Hanna’s win.
In 2015, Alisdair McDonnell of the SDLP was returned here with the smallest share of the vote of any UK constituency, with just 24.5% of the vote. This time, Claire Hanna achieved 57.2% of the vote, a remarkable endorsement from Belfast South voters.
Whilst it was clear to see the jubilation on the faces of all those elected, especially the beaming smile of Claire Hanna, it was hard not to see the pain for those who lost their seats. No matter your political allegiances, these one-time MPs have lost their jobs, and of course, their staff as well.
With the count complete at Titanic, the focus fell to Twitter feeds of activity at the Magherafelt and Omagh counts. The SDLP’s success continued with a similarly impressive win for leader Colum Eastwood in Foyle. The fourth last to declare across the country, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, with the site of a dreaded recount. Eventually at around 7am, Sinn Féin retained the seat, only by 57 votes. Still, a larger majority than the 4 votes of 2010.
What a night! Surprises and impressive results throughout Northern Ireland. The election heralded an impressive statistic, now well-worn in the media: Northern Ireland now has more nationalist MPs than unionist MPS – a marked shift. Focus now turns to Stormont – the DUP and Sinn Féin have lost some of their vote with smaller parties seeing an increase.
But, don’t hold your breath. There could well be another election in the New Year – another long count could be coming soon.
Peter is a 22 year-student doing a Masters in Journalism at Ulster University. Hailing from Yorkshire originally, Peter has an interest in both British and Northern Irish politics. Peter graduated from Queen's University in 2019 from his degree in English.