Sinn Fein’s Francie Molloy has won the Mid Ulster by-election to fill the seat at Westminster vacated by the party’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
The count took place at Cookstown Leisure Centre after voting on Thursday in the constituency, which covers parts of Counties Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh.
The result was widely predicted even before counting began, and Sinn Fein did not have long to wait before celebrating the return of a new abstentionist MP to the Westminster parliament.
With Mr McGuinness on hand to congratulate him, Francie Molloy said he was “proud and humbled to win this victory for the people of Mid Ulster” and paid credit to “all those who have struggled to make days like this possible”.
“I thank the people of Mid Ulster for putting their confidence in me,” Mr Molloy said.
“I want to build jobs for young people ... and to give them training to allow them to take up those positions.
“We want to get planning permission for factories in rural parts of Mid Ulster to ensure those jobs can be provided across the constituency.”
However, the margin of victory was slightly less than anticipated as the count began, with Molloy in the end holding off the United Unionist candidate, undertaker Nigel Lutton, by less than 5,000 votes.
The two other candidates in the field were senior Social Democratic and Labour Party Assembly member Patsy McGlone and teacher Eric Bullick, who represented the moderate unionist Alliance Party. Both managed to increase their vote share, with the SDLP recapturing the vote they last saw in 2005.
An unusually low nationalist turnout was blamed for the decline in Sinn Fein’s vote. An estimated 4,000 nationalists did not vote this time out, reducing the overall turnout to 55% from 63% in 2010, and continuing a decline from the record 82% turnout seen in 2001.
Despite the drop in his party’s share, Mr Molloy felt Sinn Fein had held onto their base. “It was a by-election and we expected the turnout would be down. And in the reduced turnout, for the vote to hold was very important.”
The emergence of Lutton as a single ‘unionist unity’ candidate has had major ramifications for the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), and his showing will likely boost plans for the UUP to forge closer links with Peter Robinson’s DUP.
His vote of 34.4% marked a 1.7% increase on the combined votes of the DUP, the TUV and Conservative Party last time out, and resulted in a surprise overall swing from nationalists to unionists in the constituency.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said Lutton had performed “very strongly” while Sinn Fein’s vote had declined “significantly”, despite having a more established candidate.
Speaking after the result was announced Mr Lutton described himself as “the undertaker who had resurrected unionism”.
The final votes were as follows:
Francie Molloy (Sinn Fein) 17,462 (46.9%, -5.1%)
Nigel Lutton (Ind. U) 12,791 (34.4%)
Patsy McGlone (SDLP) 6,478 (17.4%, +3.1%)
Eric Bullick (Alliance) 487 (1.3%, +0.3%)