The count diary part 2: FST – Thursday night

With the business of West Tyrone done, the attention now turned to the main event, so to speak and the main reason the majority of the press pack were in Omagh – Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

The shock result from East Belfast had set a disbelieving tone in the hot leisure centre canteen and if anything, that result served to inspire Gildernew’s team that they could upset the odds, as the count staff began to break open the 96 ballot boxes from FST.

Fearghal McKinney’s entrance shortly after 1am to a few camera flashes was perhaps the most attention the new SDLP candidate would receive that night. As the whispers began to filter into the canteen from the count below, they suggested that the only certainty at that stage was that McKinney’s vote had been decimated. McKinney would increasingly become a bit part player on the fringes of the main event as the hours passed, overcast and irrelevant.

I noted shortly after, Barry McElduff standing with McKinney in the middle of the canteen deeply engrossed in something of a mildly robust exchange. The West Tyrone MLA later revealed to me that McKinney had taken exception to his suggestion on Radio Ulster that the SDLP candidate ran the risk of being stigmatised as a “vote splitter”. Obviously not something McKinney would want to be stuck with for any further forray into politics.

As the night wore on, those rumours and suggestions from the count below that filtered into the canteen would prove almost without fail to be accurate ones. As I gauged the mood from both parties, Sinn Fein were admitting that Connor may take the seat, they were preparing themselves for that eventuality at least. However they were satisfied with the FST campaign, Barry McColgan revealed that “a national effort” had gone into the constituency. On the other hand the unionist unity team were conceding that their vote had not fully come out to back Connor.

The steady buzz in the canteen became occasionally interrupted by the results from the rest of the northern constituencies, which were now flooding in on the wall mounted TV. It was becoming clear that Connor and Gildernew were neck and neck, things were getting very tense.

Michelle Gildernew arrived at Omagh leisure centre shortly after 2am, and passed through the canteen negotiating the frantic flurry of photographers and TV cameras to eventually pass through security to go downstairs for the count.

Then at 3am the first news of the result burst into the room to the cheers of the Connor team, he had it by 8 votes, but a recount was already underway. Hearts were racing, both candidates had just over 21,000 votes. Arlene Foster was all smiles on the TV, but we were in for a long night.

The first recount was expected to take 1hr 30mins, but it took less than half that time and at around 3.40am a young female relative of Michelle Gildernew burst into the canteen squealing “We won!” Gildernew had won the recount by 10 votes, taking an unbelieveable 18 vote swing to send the Sinn Fein team in the canteen into raptures. Of course there would be another recount, but for now things were looking good for Team Gildernew.

The media were latching on to any sudden movement or suggestion in the room with sight of two camera flashes in a row enough to bring half a dozen photographers racing across the room. The circus went into top gear around a table in the middle of the canteen where Barry McElduff, Pat Doherty and a number of councillors were seated with their phones out. Word was Sinn Fein was getting their solicitor Pat Fahy out of bed at 4am as a precaution, Cllr Declan McAleer was predicting judicial review “a dead cert” now.

Unionists needn’t have worried about any legal representation as Arlene Foster walked through the doors all smiles after 4am. She must have hit some speed on the M1 to get down the road from Belfast so fast. Just over an hour before  she was punching air on the TV at the news that Connor was in front after the first count. Twenty minutes later Pat Fahy was in the canteen speaking to the Sinn Fein contingent, however by 4.30am the result of the second recount was in and Gildernew was still in front, but this time only by two.  The count would now be suspended until 11am the following day to relieve the exhausted tension of the leisure centre. Martin McGuinness revealed the following day that he was on his way to Omagh until he got the call that the count had been suspended, some suggested he had been summoned to trump Foster’s cameo.

Anyway that was it for the night as the count staff drifted out and into their cars. The Old Mountfield Road has never been as busy at 4.35am in its history i’ll wager.

Read part 3 for the final installment of the dramatic Fermanagh and South Tyrone count.

About AldousDuke
Mid Tyrone journalist, not so freelance any more.

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