SDLP leader Colum Eastwood is the new MP for Foyle following an astonishing performance in the general election on Thursday.
He received one of the biggest mandates anywhere, amassing 26,881 votes, 57% of the total ballot, a 17.7% surge on the party’s percentage share in the 2017 election.
His majority over his nearest rival, Sinn Féin’s Elisha McCallion, who polled 9,711 votes (20.7%), was an incredible 17,170. Sinn Féin were down 19% on their breakthrough performance two-and-a-half years ago.
Prior to last Thursday night’s count the last time the ‘Journal’ had been in the Meadowbank Sports Arena in Magherafelt had been to watch Paul ‘Dudie’ McCloskey stop Danny Rasilla to take the European title in late 2009.
It was a different form of combat on Thursday but if this had been a boxing bout it would have been stopped.
Long before the declaration it was clear Mr. Eastwood was going to win by a significant ‘margin’, as one rival organiser told the ‘Journal’ in the freezing sports hall.
Another non-SDLP activist told us how an Eglinton ballot box had been full of Eastwood votes but perhaps more significantly a box from one of the Creggan count centres, St.John’s, was also packed with SDLP Xs. It was the same all over the constituency.
When the extent of his majority was revealed, larger than any achieved by former leaders John Hume and Mark Durkan, Mr. Eastwood took to the dais.
“I want to especially thank the people of Derry. I think they have sent a very clear message. In fact, I think they have roared that message to all of us in politics today.
“This is a story about the revival of the SDLP but it is more about the message and the desire of the people of our city and the people of the North generally. We heard you loud and clear.
“We know you want someone to go to Westminster to fight your case, to stand up to Boris Johnson, to protect us from Brexit but you also want us to get back to work at Stormont,” he declared.
Speaking to the ‘Journal’ Mr. Eastwood said he was thrilled to have been entrusted with such a mandate.
“We are very, very proud. It is the biggest vote, the biggest majority we’ve ever got in Foyle. It’s not about me. The SDLP team delivered this. More importantly the people of Derry delivered this. We don’t take anything for granted.”
He acknowledged his victory had been enabled by votes from people who might previously have voted for other parties.
“We know that people from right across the political spectrum voted for us because they want representation at Westminster but they also want politicians to get back to work and fix the health service. One in four of our people are on a waiting list. Let’s get back to work and sort that out.”
Mr. Eastwood said he believed his promise that he would take his seat in Westminster to ‘Stop Boris, Stop Brexit’ and his consistent argument that power-sharing should be restored to tackle the crises in health care and schools funding had resonated with voters.
“It was a lot of things. It was representation. It was the fact that Stormont wasn’t there. It was the fact that our city is on its knees economically but nobody is doing anything to fix it.”
But can Brexit and Boris be stopped? Mr. Eastwood has said he is no fan of Westminster but insists Derry needs to be represented there.
“We have to do two things. We need representation in Westminster. The bottom line is we have Boris Johnson back in government and we need someone to defend us from him.
"We need to work with other parties across the political spectrum in Westminster to defend out interests here; to defend Irish interests in Westminster. We also need Stormont back up and running though because we need government and government ministers to invest in Derry and to fix the health service. We need all those things and I think that’s what people voted for,” he said.
DUP candidate Gary Middleton will be disappointed with his performance on Thursday. He received 4,773 votes (10.1%), substantially down on 2017 when he won 7,398 votes or 16.1 per cent of all votes cast.
That’s a 6 per cent drop. Aontú’s Anne McCloskey 2,032 (4.3 per cent) was the fourth highest polling candidate in the party’s first Westminster poll.
People Before Profit’s Shaun Harkin was slightly down on his 2017 total polling 1,332 (2.8 per cent). And the Alliance Party’s Rachel Ferguson, who received 1,267 votes (2.7 per cent), and Darren Guy of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), who won 1,088 votes (2.3 per cent), failed to make any real impact.
Of a total electorate of 74,346 just 47,370 (63.72 per cent) turned out, which was down in percentage terms on 2017. There were 226 invalid votes, leaving 47,144 valid votes in total.