Northern Ireland elections: ‘There are people revolving at high speed in their graves tonight’

Once a bastion of unionism, Belfast City Hall likely to be dominated by Sinn Féin

Either side of the cipollino marbled pillars on the first floor of Belfast City Hall, the walls are lined with portraits of former lord mayors.

Once a bastion of unionism – it wasn’t until 1997 that the city’s first Catholic nationalist mayor took office – one teatime poll-watcher at the council elections was overheard observing that there’s “people revolving at high speed in their graves tonight”.

With 60 seats up for grabs, Sinn Féin party members and activists could be heard before they were seen from early lunchtime, when the party’s Balmoral candidate, Geraldine McAteer, became the first person elected out of the 121 candidates running.

The party’s early success on the first day of the election count – half of Belfast City Council’s 10 district electoral areas (DEAs) were being counted on Friday with the remainder tomorrow – was reflected across other parts of the North.


In the Black Mountain area of west Belfast – a nationalist stronghold where turnout was almost 60 per cent, the highest of the today’s Belfast DEAs – Sinn Féin took an unprecedented 72 per cent of the vote.

By early evening, party president Mary Lou McDonald and Stormont First Minister Designate Michelle O’Neill arrived to rapturous applause from an expectant crowd – they had been practising their cheers and “yeoows” beforehand on the ornate marbled ground floor of City Hall – and demands for selfies.

Amid the euphoria, Ms O’Neill cautioned, “There are many votes still to be counted folks,” but added, “there is no doubt we are making gains across the board”. By 9pm, the party had secured 11 seats.

By contrast, there was a notable absence of high-profile Ulster Unionist Party members – a veteran pollster noted he had “seen no Ulster Unionist” by mid-afternoon. The party’s poor performance is all the more significant given that in the 1973, when Belfast City Council replaced Belfast Corporation, it dominated the local authority.

The DUP’s Edwin Poots spoke to some media but party leader Jeffrey Donaldson was a no-show.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long’s arrival mid-afternoon was more low key as she congratulated Mickey Murray, Tara Brooks, Sam Nelson, Eric Hanvey and Michael Long on winning seats.

While Sinn Féin’s consolidation of its vote was predicted (it currently has the largest number of councillors in Belfast, at 18, followed by the DUP, at 15, no one party commands a majority on the council), the dire predictions for the SDLP did not come to pass.

With the SDLP currently holding five seats on the council, one pre-election poll had them “wiped out” in Belfast and gaining only one seat.

An emotional Séamas De Faoite secured an SDLP seat in Lisnasharragh while Donal Lyons and Carl Whyte were also returned.

The biggest casualty of the day was Green Party leader Mal O’Hara, who lost his seat in the Castle DEA.

His loss came as a double blow – it makes him the party’s second leader to lose their seat in a year, after Clare Bailey lost her South Belfast MLA seat in Assembly elections last May.

Mr O’Hara was seen leaving City Hall before his exclusion. By 8.30pm, a relieved looking Brian Smith became the first Green Party candidate returned of the day, for Lisnasharragh.

An hour earlier, veteran Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) candidate and party leader Billy Hutchinson was also seen driving away.

A key figure in the loyalist negotiation team during the peace process talks in the lead-up to the Belfast Agreement, Mr Hutchinson was not officially out of the race by 9pm but he is expected to lose the PUP seat that the party has held since 1981.

Following the 25th anniversary of the landmark peace deal, one observer said:

“It’s the end of loyalist representation at Belfast City Council, that’s significant.”

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times