Northern Irish Greens – a count to remember
Adam McGibbon is a key activist for the Green Party in Northern Ireland, he writes for Bright Green fresh from a gruelling campaign, and even more gruelling count…
It’s Sunday and the blur of the NI Assembly election is over. The last few days haven’t given many in the Green Party in Northern Ireland much time to reflect. Especially those of us who had gone through the longest count of the entire election – the North Down count in the Ards Leisure Centre, Newtownards, which lasted from 7AM on Friday until 10PM on Saturday.
Over the weeks previous we had engaged in the best campaign the Greens in Northern Ireland have perhaps ever fought. With a high-profile candidate, Steven Agnew, we canvassed thousands upon thousands of doors in North Down. We can honestly say we got the best reception we’ve ever had – the fact that huge amounts of people seemed to be switching on to our message was great, and spurred us on throughout what was a long, tough campaign.
Despite this, the outcome was far from certain. Anyone that knows anything about North Down will know about its tendency to come up with surprising results. It has in the past elected everything from feminist MLAs to anti-Good Friday Agreement unionists. Crucially, in 2007 it elected the first Green MLA, Brian Wilson, who was stepping down, and this was a seat we were defending. However, we were defending it against two Alliance Party candidates, one of which was Brian’s wife, Cllr Anne Wilson. Anne has a strong local track record, and Alliance in general have been undergoing a serious resurgence over the last year.
The count was nail-biting. After a huge delay in verification, the counting proper finally started at 5PM. Tallies confirmed that Steven was going to be slightly ahead of Wilson on the first count… to win one of the six seats, we had to stay ahead for the entire race. When the first stage was completed, the Greens were in 6th place with 2,207 votes – Anne Wilson was in 7th place with 2,100 votes.
107 votes separated the two candidates. This was going to be knife-edge; and to compound the suspense, the first stage took so long that the Electoral Office suspended the count until the following morning.
On Saturday morning, stage after stage was conducted. The early stages elected 3 DUP MLAs, leaving three seats in play, with ten candidates still fighting for them. For me, it seemed that all hope was lost when the transfers from the SDLP weren’t as substantial as we’d hoped. Although we were still edging ahead of Anne (105 votes ahead), I feared that the transfers from the UUP, from UKIP, and from independent unionists, would all favour the Alliance Party over the Greens.
Despite this, we fared much better than we hoped. Hours separated the results of each stage. The pressure was unbearable. Tempers frayed. One candidate was temporarily excluded from the count centre for calling a polling agent a nazi. An MLA (not a candidate in North Down) was standing over polling agents constantly interrupting their counting, interfering with the process. Each stage, Agnew was just ahead of Wilson by around a hundred votes. Sometimes our lead shrank, sometimes it grew. The elimination of Chambers (Ind. Unionist) put Leslie Cree (UUP) ahead of both Agnew and Wilson. The elimination of another unionist and the distribution of their transfers prompted a recount request from McFarland (another Ind. Unionist), in an unsuccessful attempt to bridge the 50-vote gap between himself and Wilson to stop him being eliminated.
The fact that the first Alliance candidate (Stephen Farry) had not yet reached the quota required for election at this stage meant that the transfers from the unionists were divided between him and his running mate, Wilson – this allowed the Greens to stay in the race until Stage 10 – the distribution of McFarland’s transfers. At this point, ‘Stage 10’ became ‘Stage 10-C’ as a recount of Peter Weir (DUP)’s surplus transfers was carried out, and the distribution of Farry and Cree’s surpluses took place.
This left the final stage with Agnew just 99 votes ahead of Wilson, and so Steven was elected to the sixth and final seat in North Down. The Greens had won! We were so tired after the marathon count that our utter joy was rather subdued, but we couldn’t have been happier with the result.
Only those who sit through an 11-stage Single Transferable Vote count, with their candidate hanging in there by the smallest of margins, will understand just how agonizingly slow (but fair) it is. When the stage-by-stage results appear here, I’d encourage everyone to take a look to see just how close the race was. It’s difficult to emphasise without the statistics. And never underestimate the power of an apparently useless 9th or 10th preference vote.
The election of Agnew in North Down is much more significant than his predecessor in the same constituency four years ago – the Greens have demonstrated clearly that they can fight and win Assembly seats in their own right. The election of Brian Wilson in 2007 was widely believed to have been reliant on Wilson’s (a popular independent councillor before his time in the Greens) personal vote, an analysis that led many to characterise the Greens as a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon. That analysis has now been proved incorrect.
When it came to acceptance speeches, between the unhinged (“I want to thank almighty god for my party’s election victory”) and the bizarre (“I just want to thank my three dogs”), Steven used his speech to deliver a moving tribute to a close friend who had passed away in the midst of the campaign, and whose funeral took place on the first day of the count. Even those of us including myself who never knew Steven’s friend couldn’t help but be moved by it. For me, this spoke volumes about Steven’s honesty, his resilience and his humanity. These traits have already given him a high profile even before he was elected, and traits that will ensure that he is an effective, popular voice of reason in the Assembly; a shining light of hope to keep political environmentalism alive in Northern Ireland and also to champion the many sensible causes that would go unheard in the chamber without the Greens, who are set to be the only progressive political party not in the NI Executive in this coming Assembly. I predict that only two / three MLAs will make up the whole opposition. Our role will be vital.
Although I never, ever want to see the inside of the Ards Leisure Centre again, The local election counts start on Monday morning – I’m confident that the Greens will make gains here too.
In the last Assembly, with one MLA we managed to get all the other parties to sing off the ‘Green New Deal’ hymn sheet (even the DUP), disgrace a climate-skeptic environment minister, all the while raising issues that had never seen the inside of the chamber before.
I’m looking forward to seeing what the incredibly capable Steven Agnew will achieve in the next four years.