The craic from the count at Foyle Arena during the Derry & Strabane Council election 2023
It takes a certain amount of steel to put yourself forward for election as a Council candidate, knowing it will mean major changes for you and your family over the next four years, if you get in.
It was an early start for the count centre, Council and security staff, as well as the media, on Friday as they gathered at Foyle Arena. Passing through the airport-style security scanning system at the entrance of the Waterside leisure centre, however, the lobby seemed oddly quiet. In contrast to previous elections, there were few people to be seen beyond the main hall where the first boxes were being opened under the flash of cameras as media photographers were granted a brief window to capture the moment.
As the morning progressed and ballots were verified, disseminated, counted and sorted into piles in the main hall, just outside, candidates and colleagues, relatives and friends began trickling in, huddling in corners in fours and fives discussing potential scenarios.
Informal briefings confirmed the tallies before Deputy Electoral Officer John Kelpie made the first of many trips to the lectern in the declaration room to deliver the quotas and turnout for the first wards. A very smooth operation at the count centre meant it wasn't long before the first counts were in and that pace kept up throughout Friday and Saturday with journalists and photographers based in the media centre on the first floor fittingly getting their steps in at the leisure centre as they ran up and down the stairs to live stream and record the frequent flurry of results across the seven wards in between fact checking and uploading stories, photos, videos and social media posts.
It wasn't long into the count when the pattern of this election began unfolding. As more and more boxes were opened, most of the chatter on the ground floor was that Sinn Féin was polling extremely well in Derry & Strabane and right across the north. This could be a historic election for the party. And there would be casualties elsewhere.
The official results confirmed this. Count after count saw every Sinn Féin Councillor had polled strongly. Talk began to turn to whether they would get all 18 candidates over the line. And, as the counts neared conclusion for each of the seven areas, it became clear they would. 18 candidates stood for the party and 18 times they were returned to cheers and hugs from the party representatives and relatives who were filtering in and out of the declaration room with increasing frequency. And, as those results rolled in, the biggest media scrum of the count gathered to capture the arrival of Sinn Féin First Minister Designate Michelle O'Neill who applauded the candidates as she entered Foyle Arena on Saturday afternoon.
In another room a few feet away, after some early doubts and, doubtless, some frayed nerves, the SDLP, while it faced significant losses across the north, was busy returning some of its 10 successful candidates to the Council here, down just 1 on its 2019 performance.
The SDLP team looked a lot more upbeat and buoyant on Saturday as they gathered to celebrate a succession of candidates being elected to represent the cityside. And the SDLP also made history itself in Derry with the strong polling and election of previously co-opted Councillor Lilian Seenoi-Barr, the first black politician to be elected to public office in the north, alongside running mate Shauna Cusack in Foyleside.
Perhaps one of the biggest shocks in the election was the early elimination of popular former Mayor and independent Faughan candidate Graham Warke, leaving some to muse whether standing in a different ward might have produced a different result for the former DUP representative.
The Alliance, too, lost its two well regarded public representatives, Rachael Ferguson and Philip McKinney, despite its vote share staying relatively stable.
It also became clear that there would be no Aontú representative in the new Council after a dejected Emmet Doyle took to social media to concede he would not be re-elected.
Three Independent candidates held their own, however, with Independent candidate Gary Donnelly staying true to previous form and, once again, topping the poll in The Moor, while Raymond Barr and Paul Gallagher also polled strongly to be returned in Sperrin.
There was good news, too, for the UUP who gained a third seat, while the DUP returned 5 councillors, down 2 from 2019.
The final casualty late on Saturday afternoon was Maeve O'Neill who lost out in a close contest for seats in The Moor to Emma McGinley, who became the 40th Councillor to be elected, the third for Sinn Féin in The Moor and one of 12 female representatives on the new Council.
And you could see what it all meant. It was an emotional close to a well run election count and a very well run campaign by Sinn Féin as some of the candidates fought back tears when the result was formally declared. In a very poignant final scene, the three Moor Sinn Féin candidates formed their own ring of steel as they wrapped their arms around each other when running mate Colr. Patricia Logue dedicated this historic victory to the late Donnacha MacNiallias and Raymond (Griff) Griffin.
Within minutes, Foyle Arena fell quiet. Council and security staff made for home, the scanners were dismantled and only the clacking of the few remaining journalists filing their final copy and the whir of vacuum cleaners could be heard as the curtain closed on a count and an election that could help shape the future of this place we call home.