AS THE political circus rolled into Omagh town on Friday it was inevitable that Sinn Fein would emerge as the over-all leading party across the nationalist dominated councils.
Despite a dip in their overall vote and the loss of a seat to the SDLP in Erne East, Sinn Fein claimed 17 seats in the new Fermanagh and Omagh super council – eight of which is spread across the four DEAs (District Electorate Area) in Fermanagh.
The two-day counting process was played out in Omagh Leisure Complex – which is currently undergoing the last stages of its multi-million pound refurbishment – and while it was the first time all the new and seasoned Fermanagh and Omagh councillors gathered in the same building, the honeymoon stage of the new relationship passed off amicably.
While the continued success of Sinn Fein – with 17 out of a total of 40 seats – was the headline story, there were subplots including the surprising reslience of the SDLP who managed to secure a total of eight seats – a far cry from other parts of the North, including Derry, where the party lost control of the council for the first time in over two decades.
It took over 18 hours across the two days to count, re-count, eliminate and elect all the 37 candidates and despite the counting lasting until late Friday night and Saturday evening, it failed to flare any tempers as the counts rolled into the seventh and eighth stages.
However, the frustration and sometimes boredom was palpable among some of the political contingents as they waited hours for the final councillors to be announced. One remedy to this prolonged process, as suggested by UUP MLA Tom Elliott, is to use an e-counting system where the ballots and their votes are counted using a scanner which is said to save time and money. It has been trailed in Scotland but has been criticised for its high-end expense so it’s doubtful the Northern Ireland Assembly would commit to such expenditure.
After weeks of spending long hours canvassing across their DEAs, for the candidates all their hard work and efforts to sell their policies on the door steps of hundreds of homes comes down to those final few hours. It’s a vulnerable time for some of them, particularly those who are fighting for their old seat in the new Fermanagh and Omagh super council.
The new-comers put on an impressive performance during these local government elections with eight fresh faces now entering local politics including brothers John and Anthony Feely (Sinn Fein) and Richie McPhillips (SDLP) who comes from a family who have a long history of service to local communities dating back to 1899 when his grandfather was first elected to local government in Clones.
As counting got underway many of the candidates knew their fate early as parties and independents kept a close tally on their progress.
Deputy Returning Officer Jean McCaffrey kept the candidates in order as she announced the results of the different stages, some being elected, some bowing out and the rest edging closer to the election finish line but on one occasion as she announced UUP man Howard Thornton’s surplus results as 666, it was met by bursts of laughter which helped take the edge off a long Saturday.
This week the councillors will get a taste of their roles as the shadow-councils are due to meet for the first time within the coming days.