The DUP retook East Belfast from Alliance’s Naomi Long – but the symbolic victory was far narrower than the party had hoped.
Throughout counting at the King’s Hall, DUP members were far from ecstatic as they watched similar-sized piles of ballot papers pile up on two tables – one marked with the name of Mr Robinson and the other bearing the name of the woman who stunned Peter Robinson five years ago by defeating the DUP leader.
In the end, Mr Robinson’s victory was clear, but – despite the constituency’s staunch unionist history – it was not overwhelming.
The barrister, who is a Belfast City councillor and has been a special adviser to Peter Robinson at Stormont over recent years, polled 19,575 to Mrs Long’s 16,978 – a majority of 2,597 votes.
That margin indicates that Mr Robinson would not have won the seat if the UUP, TUV and Ukip had fielded candidates – despite DUP protestations to the contrary at the time when the unionist pact was announced.
In the 2010 Westminster election the combined UUP and TUV vote was 9,161.
Turnout was up from 58.7 per cent in 2010 to 63.1 per cent, as the stark choice between the two leading candidates appeared to motivate more people to come out and exercise their democratic rights.
Although there were six candidates in total, the two-horse nature of the contest meant that the vote for the Alliance and DUP candidates increased significantly.
Mr Robinson’s victory speech appeared uncharacteristic for a moderate DUP figure who has attempted to win back the voters who deserted his party leader five years ago.
Referring to a campaign in which there has frequently been tension between the two main candidates, Mr Robinson said that it had been a “polarising” election, but that it had “energised people right across the constituency”.
“When people were offered the choice as to whether they wished to go forward or back, they chose forward. And they chose forward with somebody they can trust.
“When people in East Belfast were asked to vote for a shared future, they chose to share that future with somebody they can trust, rather than back a party that are only interested in offering us a future if we share their view.”
To raucous cheers from crowds of supporters, Mr Robinson said: “When people were offered a choice to vote for progress and the Union over backward abstention, backward agnosticism on the Union, they chose progress.”
He added: “I want to thank Peter Robinson, our party leader, our First Minister and somebody who not only led me into politics, but has served as my mentor for many years...”
With emphasis in his voice, Mr Robinson said: “I am delighted the last five long years are over. I am delighted a new day has dawned in East Belfast.”
Mrs Long pointed out that her vote had gone up by around 4,000 on 2010.
The east Belfast native said that she had been honoured to represent the constituency in Parliament for the last five years.
She said her party’s campaign was “unrivalled” in the history of Northern Ireland politics. “We polled the best vote Alliance has ever polled,” she said.
“I want to say a huge thank you to the constituents who have backed me, to those who came out and voted in unprecedented numbers to support the vision Alliance put to them – a positive vision for Northern Ireland and its future, not a negative one.”
The Alliance deputy leader declined to discuss her immediate future, but there is speculation that she will return to the Assembly at some point.
Speaking to UTV at lunchtime on Friday, Mr Robinson seemed to want to be more conciliatory towards his opponent.
He referred to the late hour and his tiredness when the speech was made, but went on to praise Mrs Long as an “incredible” politician, albeit one with whom he “fundamentally” disagreed.
Mr Robinson added that the results across the Province “validated the pact”.
Peter Robinson was also conciliatory towards Mrs Long, saying of her defeat: “I’ve been there before, I know it’s disappointing to lose an election.”
Despite the two-horse nature of the contest, three other candidates polled in the region of 1,000 votes.
Neil Wilson of the Conservatives came a creditable third with 1,121 votes. Ross Brown, who last year broke through in Belfast for the Green Party by getting elected as a councillor, polled 1,058 votes.
In fifth place, Sinn Fein former lord mayor Niall O’Donnghaile actually increased his vote fractionally to 823 votes – despite expectations that he could be squeezed if nationalists voted tactically for Mrs Long.
However, the SDLP candidate, Mary Muldoon (who took 844 votes here a decade ago), took just 127 votes – evidence of a significant shift among some nationalist voters from the SDLP towards Alliance.
• Gavin Robinson (DUP): 19,575, 49.3pc, up 73pc from 2010
• Naomi Long (Alliance): 16,978, 42.8pc, up 32pc
• Neil Wilson (Conservative): 1,121, 2.8pc
• Ross Brown (Green): 1,058, 2.7pc
• Niall O Donnghaile (Sinn Fein): 823, 2.1pc up 0.7pc
• M Muldoon (SDLP): 127, 0.3pc, down 65pc
Turnout: 63.1 pc