SINN Féin’s gain of four seats at the local council elections has given them a clear majority on Newry, Mourne and Down District Council but the party says this also sends out a wider message. In 2019, Sinn Féin became the largest party on the local authority when it won 16 seats, up two from its previous tally, and five ahead of the SDLP who won 11.
But the electoral triumph this year means they are one seat away from holding a majority in the council. They have 20 seats, 12 ahead of the SDLP (8) with the other parties sharing the rest – DUP 5, Alliance 5, Independents 2 and UUP 1. South Down MLA Cathy Mason, who was elected as a councillor in 2019, before going on to win a seat at Stormont in the 2022 Assembly election, said that this latest poll conveyed an unmistakable message. She said: “It shows that people have sent a clear signal of what they want. They want Stormont back up and running. They want this place to work and they want politicians who will work for all.” Sinn Féin’s campaign put Stormont at the forefront, and their campaign posters frequently featured images of the First Minister-in-waiting Michelle O’Neill who has not yet been able to take up her position because of the DUP’s unwillingness to take up their seats.
The local MLA said that the vote for Sinn Féin had much to do with Michelle O’Neill. “I think that it is a real endorsement of the positive leadership that we have seen in Michelle O’Neill as First Minister designate.” But she added that local issues played a part in the huge vote her party gained. “I think on a local level they (voters) want hard working councillors who are on the ground and will deliver for the people. We are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. People want dependable, hard-working councillors who are there for them. I think a lot of the bigger politics did come into play.”
In the past nine years Sinn Fein has gone from having the same number of seats on the district council as the SDLP to becoming the undisputed leading party, with almost three times as many seats as their nearest political rivals. The MLA said hard work has been key to their success. “Most of our councillors say that your campaign starts on the day you are elected. “I think the delivery and the past record of our councillors is proven and has brought them to where they are. “This election for us was the same. We always work hard when it comes to election time. I think the track record of our hard working councillors has paid off.” So if that is the case, and the hard work for the next election begins now, what are Sinn Féin planning on delivering over the next four years? “We just want to keep doing what we have been doing and keep delivering for people here, specifically for people in Newry, Mourne and Down. “We have a big council team, we want to keep doing that work to deliver local services. “We have a big focus on our community facilities, our sporting facilities, delivering for people on the ground locally, and investing in our health services. We have an issue [with health services], locally in Downpatrick, and in Newry with Daisy Hill and the Downe Hospital.” Her analysis was echoed by South Down MP Chris Hazzard who has said the results of the local council elections demonstrate a clear desire to see an end to the political impasse. “Sinn Féin went into this campaign with a positive message of wanting to make politics work for all,” he said. “48.3 per cent vote in Newry, Mourne & Down is a positive endorsement of Sinn Féin’s message that workers, families and communities need to be supported, and that the blocking of a new Assembly by one party must end. “20 seats on council is now an historic opportunity to transform local council and deliver for local communities here in Newry, Mourne and Down. “We want to work together with others. To build a better future for everyone, protect public services, attract investment, create jobs for our young people, and deliver the change people here demand and rightfully deserve. “The onus is now on the British and Irish Governments to get together and focus their efforts on the immediate restoration of the Executive and Assembly. “We expect to see an early meeting of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference. “The boycott of the Assembly cannot go on and an Executive must be formed. “It is time to make politics work for all right across this island.”