Counting gets underway in North's Euro elections

The counting of votes cast in the European election in Northern Ireland gets underway this morning with the Irish and British government anxiously awaiting the results to assess the impact on efforts to revive devolution.

The counting of votes cast in the European election in Northern Ireland gets underway this morning with the Irish and British government anxiously awaiting the results to assess the impact on efforts to revive devolution.

But with the two extremes of Ulster politics fighting it out for top spot, hope of a swift breakthrough is sparse.

The Rev Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin are expected to fill the first two seats with the Ulster Unionists and SDLP fighting it out for the third.

A first European seat for Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland would be the perfect end for them to a weekend which saw substantial gains for the party in the Republic.

Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy gets the parties together again for two days tomorrow for a fresh round of talks reviewing the Good Friday Agreement in his effort to find a way of restoring power sharing devolution to Stormont.

However with the traditional summer marching season swiftly approaching – and with it the inevitable tensions – it is likely to be autumn before a full-blooded drive for agreement gets under way.

The Northern Ireland Office said Mr Murphy would be studying the “mood music” after the results this week.

While an early summit involving Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair and the parties has not been ruled out, it is more likely it will take place in the autumn.

Before the talking takes place, all eyes will be on Belfast’s King’s Hall where the votes will be counted.

With the DUP’s Jim Allister and Sinn Féin’s Bairbre de Brun expected to fill the first two seats, it will be left for Ulster Unionist Jim Nicholson and the SDLP’s Martin Morgan to scrap for the final seat.

Mr Nicholson has been an MEP for 15 years, while Mr Morgan, Belfast Lord Mayor until earlier this month, is bidding to retain the seat held by former SDLP leader John Hume.

For either party to fail will mean it has no representation in Strasbourg for the first time since the European Parliament first sat in 1979.

Ballot papers were verified on Friday with overall turnout estimated by the parties to be around 51% – typical of European elections in Northern Ireland but down on four years ago.

Tally men at the verification of ballots reported turnouts of 65% – 66% in the Mid Ulster and Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituencies held by Sinn Féin MP’s Martin McGuinness and Michelle Gildernew.

In contrast, unionist constituencies such as North Down and Strangford reported poor turn-outs of 38% and 39.9% respectively.

Away from the big four, candidates standing were independent John Gilliland, Socialist Environmental Alliance candidate Eamonn McCann and the Green Party’s Lindsay Whitcroft.

The level of support for Mr Gilliland, until recently the president of the Ulster Farmers Union, could be critical to the battle between Jim Nicholson and Martin Morgan. He could well takes votes from the rural farming community which Mr Nicholson would have expected to go his way in previous elections.

As soon as the results are known attention will turn to the resumed talks at Stormont.

The Rev Ian Paisley said he was “ready to get down to business“, but said there would be “no compromise” over sharing power with Sinn Féin.

He said he would not “tolerate the placing of terrorists at the heart of government”.

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