Sinn Fein has retained its Westminster seat for the West Tyrone constituency after 26-year-old solicitor Orfhlaith Begley polled over 16,000 votes for the party in Thursday’s by-election.
She becomes the first female MP for West Tyrone in her first election outing.
Sinn Fein registered a 4% decline in the party’s vote share while its nationalist rivals in the SDLP gained 5%, reversing a swing in the other direction in last year’s election.
There was an overall increase in the nationalist vote share by just under 1%, due in part to the absence of the Green Party and independent candidates.
The DUP saw some of its voters turn to the UUP as unionists protested the party’s support for Brexit and its failure to return to powersharing with Sinn Fein. The Alliance Party also improved on its 2017 electoral performance.
The drop in Sinn Fein’s vote had not been unexpected following a series of controversies in the weeks leading up to the election, including a return by the party to a policy of ‘unionist outreach’ as well as the strongly pro-abortion stance adopted by party leader Mary Lou McDonald.
Ms McDonald was accompanied by the party’s leader in the Six Counties, Michelle O’Neill when the result was announced at 2am on Friday morning.
She hailed the election of Orfhlaith Begley as a vote against Brexit and a vote for a return to Stormont. She said she was not concerned by the decline in her party’s vote share, which she blamed on the relatively low turnout of 55.1%, down from 68.2% in last year’s Westminster election.
“In the last election, Sinn Fein took a massive percentage share, winning 50 percent of the total vote in West Tyrone,” she said.
“All the predictions were that it would be impossible to come close to that result but tonight, Orfhlaith Begley has done just that in her first election and created history by becoming the first female MP for West Tyrone.
“That is a stunning victory for Orfhlaith and for Sinn Fein.”
West Tyrone has been a safe Sinn Fein stronghold since 2001, when Pat Doherty first took the seat for the party. Ms Begley’s father, Sean, served 26 years as a Sinn Fein councillor on Omagh District Council and she was heavily involved in the party’s campaign efforts in the area.
Ms McDonald argued the result was a mandate to end the DUP’s blockage on a return to the power-sharing institutions.
“This election was the first time the people have been to the polls since the DUP walked away from the draft agreement and collapsed the talks process,” she said.
“Tonight the people have given their verdict on that and it is a huge endorsement for genuine power-sharing based on rights, equality and respect for all.
“The DUP should now end their blockage on a return to power-sharing and if they refuse, there is an onus on the two governments to urgently convene the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference to resolve the equality and rights issues at the heart of the crisis.”
Earlier in the day there was a moment of drama when a man was arrested on suspicion of possessing a firearm at a polling station in Greencastle, County Tyrone. There was also a minor controversy after a Sinn Fein election worker was accused by the SDLP of breaching rules by operating “an electronic device” -- a Kindle -- at a polling station in Dromore.
Orfhlaith Begley (SF) 16,346 (46.7%, -4.0%)
Thomas Buchanan (DUP) 8,390 (23.9%, -3.0%)
Daniel McCrossan (SDLP) 6,254 (17.9%, +4.9%)
Chris Smyth (UUP) 2,909 (8.3%, +3.2)
Stephen Donnelly (Alliance) 1,130 (3.2%, +0.9%)
Spoiled votes 308
Turnout 35,337 (55.1%)