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26 June 2003 Edition

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Sinn Féin tops poll in Crotlieve by-election

The Crotlieve by-election that took place last Wednesday witnessed a remarkable reversal of fortunes for the SDLP in South Down. Colm Burns, Sinn Féin's candidate in the election, topped the poll with 2,340 first preference votes, 31 ahead of the SDLP's Paul McKibben. Colm was only narrowly defeated through the transfer of second preference votes, which totalled 640 compared to the 1,000 received by Mr McKibben.

This constituency has, until recently, been looked upon as an SDLP stronghold and this result will have come as a major shock to their party strategists, who must now be relieved that Tony Blair cancelled the 29 May Assembly Elections. This result reversed a three to one SDLP majority and is a vindication of the decision made by South Down Sinn Féin to nominate three candidates for the Assembly Elections.

The SDLP were unable to select a candidate acceptable to the membership within their own party. Their initial choice for co-option, Peter McKibben, was replaced at an acrimonious SDLP selection committee by Rostrevor man Brendan Murney, who was then asked to step aside and make way for the original candidate. The bitter infighting that pervades the SDLP at both local and national level was reflected in this confused selection process and was all too evident to the ratepayers of Crotlieve, who were forced to pay for an unnecessary by-election.

Speaking after Thursday's count, Colm, while obviously disappointed at not being elected, was delighted to have topped the poll. He thanked the large number of party activists from South Down and Newry and Mourne who worked tirelessly during the election campaign and canvassed the entire constituency. He paid tribute to the party's national leadership who visited the constituency during the campaign. "This is an indication of Sinn Féin's commitment to the electorate of South Down and reflects how united and focused our party is at both local and national level," he said.

"In the 1991 Westminister election, the SDLP in Crotlieve received 50% of the overall vote in contrast to Sinn Féin, who polled just over 5%. This constituency was viewed as their party's 'jewel in the crown', yet in the space of just twelve years, the political landscape has changed dramatically. Today, the SDLP are a very relieved party who have witnessed, I believe, an irreversible decline in their vote in South Down. Peter McKibben scraped home and was forced to depend on second preference votes from other candidates. It is obvious that the electorate is increasingly giving their support to the analysis and policies forwarded by Sinn Féin."

South Down Cllr Mick Murphy believes that: "the postponement of the Assembly elections by the British government denied the people of the Six Counties a chance to choose their political representatives. The result of this by-election is further proof that Sinn Féin would have substantially increased its political mandate throughout the Six Counties. The elections, however, cannot be cancelled indefinitely and when they are called I am sure that Colm Burns will be elected to serve alongside his 13 fellow Sinn Féin councillors on Newry and Mourne Council."

BY GAVIN GALLAGHER, SOUTH DOWN SINN FÉIN PRO

GUE-NGL-new-Jan-2106

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