The DUP will dominate the new Lisburn and Castlereagh council with 20 councillors, but the election of NI21’s Johnny McCarthy was the shock of the day on Saturday.
Already the largest party in both the existing council areas, the DUP attracted just over 40 per cent of the overall vote this time around.
Second highest polling party was the UUP returning eight councillors – one ahead of Alliance with seven.
But the real drama was saved until the final hour of counting when a steady stream of transfers suddenly saw the name Johnny McCarthy appear from nowhere.
All eyes had been on NI21’s David Cairns as the party’s main hope for a seat but, despite 442 first preference votes and hundreds of transfers, he narrowly missed out to Amanda Grehan of Alliance for the final seat in Lisburn South.
Immediately following his election, Mr McCarthy said he was determined to stick with the party – playing down the damage caused by the party’s spectacular meltdown just days ahead of the poll.
The 24-year-old former Friends’ School pupil said he still believed in the NI21 principles of non-sectarian and inclusive politics, but refused to comment on the party’s well-publicised leadership difficulties.
“Of course I felt disappointed but all this talk of a split ... there has been none of it. We joined together as an idea – not two people – and a belief for Northern Ireland and we are still joined behind that belief.
“I don’t want to talk about the leader. There have been 47 great candidates. We have worked really, really hard and a lot have come extremely close to gaining seats. I’m really proud of that.”
The remainder of the 40 seats went to the SDLP (three) and the TUV (one). The overall turnout was 48.9 per cent.
Speaking following his re-election, Lisburn DUP councillor Paul Porter said it “felt great” to stand in the election results room as a DUP representative.
“We are now sitting with 15 [councillors] from the Lisburn side of the council. Not only do we have the best MP and the best MLAs, we are going to have the best councillors,” he said.
Another DUP success story was the election of Janet Gray in her first campaign – sparking celebrations on Friday night when it was announced she will represent the party in Downshire East.
Alexander Redpath of the UUP – who was elected to Downshire West having been co-opted on to Lisburn council – said the party’s improvement in the Lisburn and Castlereagh poll would be a springboard to further success. Former UUP MLA Basil McCrea – who left to form NI21 – is firmly in the UUP’s sights.
“We are very confident we will retake that Assembly seat. We are going after Basil and we are going to take him,” Mr Redpath added.
Stephen Martin of Alliance was re-elected as a councillor and will represent the Lisburn North area on the new council.
He celebrated his party’s success with wife Joanna and five-week-old daughter Emily.
“It’s the first time for Alliance to have councillors in the Moira, Seymour Hill and Derriaghy areas at the same time – at least the first time in a generation,” he said.