I’M not sure if Pat Cullen is going to ask Ofcom to condemn BBC Ulster for handing the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat to the UUP’s Diana Armstrong five minutes after the polls closed, but, all things considered, I think she should.

Like a group of toddlers pushing a snowball round a garden until it’s the size of a snowman’s head, the Ormeau Avenue panel kept the ‘Cullen is toast’ rumour moving until not that long after it was first mooted it had become perceived studio wisdom.

If Market MLA Deirdre Hargey thought she was there as one of the talking heads providing a running commentary on all 18 constituencies, she was to be disappointed as she found herself on dee-fense from the off.

Where the news came from that Diana Armstrong was home in a hack I have no idea; neither, I suspect, was the person or persons who birthed the story. But virtually from the off it became clear that Deirdre’s role here was to explain or excuse this Shakespearean tragedy that had brought low the high-flying trade unionist-turned Chuck.

•Where to from here for Sinn Féin?
•The second part of the disastrous Cullen-Michelle Gildernew swap has gone as wrong as the first, hasn’t it?
•It’s not like Sinn Féin to get something so badly wrong, is it?
•Disaster in the Republic and now disaster in Noel ‘n’ Alan – how did it come to this?

Now and then the viewers would be reminded that the vast majority of the ballot boxes from the FST count were still in the back of a van somewhere between Omagh and Cookstown, but that necessary little piece of housekeeping wasn’t allowed to detract from the sensation of the night (whispers of the actual sensation of Ian Paisley cashing in his air miles in North Antrim would not reach the panel’s earpieces and laptops until much later).

To her credit, Deirdre Hargey declined the invitation to join the Pat Cullen wake, insisting instead that it might be a good if rather revolutionary idea to wait for some hard data before allowing Doug Beattie to carry Diana Armstrong into the studio on his shoulders through the smoke of a ten-gun salute.

In the end it wasn’t even close. In 2019 Michelle won FST because they found a couple of ballot papers that had got lost when they were mixed up with the pizza receipts during a count break. This time round Pat took the honours with a majority so healthy she’s been offered a sponsorship deal by Actimel.

So long, big fella

It’s only six years since Ian Paisley dodged a by-election bullet in the wake of his two buckshee beach holidays in Sri Lanka. The required 10 per cent of the North Antrim electorate failed to sign a recall petition, and in a dander around Ballymena with the BBC’s Gareth Gordon, a jubilant Ian Óg famously interpreted that as a statement from the buckle of the Bible Belt: “We’re keeping you, big fella. We like you”

A WORD TO THE WISE: Ian Paisley's bluster from the past has a new resonance

A WORD TO THE WISE: Ian Paisley's bluster from the past has a new resonance

If he’d shown a bit of consistency in the wake of his defeat this week, Ian would have spoken to the BBC at the Magherafelt count instead of refusing to answer questions, and he’d have had admitted that the consensus in the shadow of Slemish was “Don’t let the door hit your arse on the way out, big fella. You get on our nerves now, quite frankly.”

The west's awake for unionism – but only just

Flegory Campbell was just 180 votes away from getting his yoghurt curried in East Derry by Sinn Féin’s Kathleen McGurk – one of the more frustrating developments on an otherwise gratifying evening for those who News Letter columnist Owen Polley has begun to refer to as ‘separatists’. (I like it. Makes me feel like we're all part of a big Star Wars cosplay.)

It was particularly galling because between them the SDLP and Aontú candidates pulled in 4.3k votes, and while no-one is suggesting that Kathleen would have pulled in the bulk or even a significant chunk of those Xs, it’s fairly obvious that had the SDLP stood aside in a quid pro quo for South Belfast then Greg would getting his car fitted for a Domino’s roof sign as we speak.

Dittú Aontú. Sorry, ditto.


It wasn’t to be, however, for the simple reason that Colum Eastwood’s grasp on the leadership is too fragile to allow him to voluntarily give up any percentage of his party’s ever-dwindling vote share. Why the Sacred Heart socialists of Aontú went for a gallop in the North-West Stakes is not as clear, although it’s possible that one of their strategists had a vision in Medjugorje.

It's all a terrible pity, really, because while a disastrous election for unionism has inevitably put it up to the new Labour Secretary of State (likely to be Hilary Benn), the loss of the union’s final remaining western outpost would have ramped the pressure up massively on him to call a border poll. Or at least tell us what the hell else we need to do to get one.