The DUP’s William Irwin was ecstatic after topping the poll in Newry and Armagh – a sharp reversal of fortunes with the UUP since the last Assembly election.
Mr Irwin won 7,980 first preference votes while his UUP rival Danny Kennedy polled 4,904, a significant drop from 8,718 in 2011. Mr Kennedy blamed the fall on DUP “fear campaigning”.
The consensus had been that there would be no change in seats from 2011 – three Sinn Fein, one DUP, one UUP and one SDLP – and as counting closed on Friday night, that seemed to be the case, with Sinn Fein having captured two seats in the first count.
Mr Irwin was delighted to reverse the DUP’s previous decline in Newry and Armagh, the party having dropped from having 18 per cent in the 2005 Westminster contest to 10 per cent in the 2014 council poll.
“It was simply down to hard work and dedication by myself and the position our party is in at the very top,” he said. “We sold a message and the people voted for us.”
Also helping, no doubt, were his highly enthusiastic election workers, who threw him above their shoulders time and again to wild cheering for photographers.
The combined votes of Mr Kennedy and his running mate – Samuel Nicholson, son of MEP Jim – were still over 1,000 behind Irwin’s first preference total.
Mr Kennedy had been the agreed unionist candidate for the area’s 2015 general election, and is one of the UUP’s best-known politicians.
But speaking after the fifth count and still not having been elected, Mr Kennedy accused the DUP of playing on unionist fears.
“I would say that I think the Arlene factor has played very much into that – and the letters that were sent out on Arlene’s behalf,” he said.
“Obviously William Irwin topped the poll and I congratulate him on that achievement.”
The key point in the DUP letter sent out to voters, he claimed, was to underline the importance of voting for DUP candidates to avoid Sinn Fein becoming the largest party, a strategy he described as “project fear”.
Good vote management by Sinn Fein had two candidates elected on the first count – Cathal Boylan with 6,822 and Megan Fearon with 6,838, their running mate Conor Murphy polling 5,854 at the first count, but like Mr Kennedy, still not having been elected by the fifth count.
At stage six Mr Kennedy had 5,817 votes, Conor Murphy 6,125 and the SDLP’s Justin McNulty 5,128, putting them substantially ahead of rivals and making their election on Saturday almost a certainty, without necessarily meeting the quota of 6,817. Turnout in the area was down slightly at 59.32 per cent having been 59.7 per cent in 2011.
NEWRY AND ARMAGH CONSTITUENCY (first preference votes)
• Paul Berry (Independent) 1,663
• Cathal Boylan (Sinn Fein) Elected 6,822
• Emmet Crossan (CISTA) 1,032
• Megan Fearon (Sinn Fein) Elected 6,838
• William Irwin (DUP) Elected 7,980
• Danny Kennedy (UUP) 4,904
• Alan Love (UKIP) 315
• Martin McAllister (Independent) 940
• Karen McKevitt (SDLP) 3,923
• Justin McNulty (SDLP) 4,775
• Conor Murphy (Sinn Fein) 5,854
• Sam Nicholson (UUP) 1,841
• Michael Watters (Green) 335
• Craig Weir (Alliance) 493