Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said last night DUP scare tactics had helped crush a hoped-for revival of the centre parties.
But in Strangford the story was one of relief and last-minute despair as the UUP’s second seat came at the expense of the SDLP’s Joe Boyle.
Contesting his fourth and almost certainly last campaign, Mr Boyle seemed in his strongest position yet only to see a healthy lead over the UUP’s Philip Smith eaten away.
Later the UUP leader, who topped the poll, said his joy at Mr Smith’s victory was tempered with sadness at Mr Boyle’s loss.
As Michelle McIlveen, Jonathan Bell and Simon Hamilton took the three seats after Mr Nesbitt, it was Kellie Armstrong of Alliance who slipped in just ahead of Smith, retaining the seat held for many years by Kieran McCarthy.
Earlier Mr Nesbitt had been deflated as he contemplated a worse than anticipated result across the Province.
Speaking after the count closed he was slightly more upbeat. “We tried to hold the 16 [seats] and show some growth and as far as I can figure out we are 16, maybe 17.
“I’m not happy. We have 4000,000 people on National Health waiting lists, economic growth at just one per cent. I’m looking at the Republic where Enda Kenny was reporting five or six per cent growth and really struggled to get a ticket back into government.
“We noticed a real mood for change at the door; that people were saying they didn’t want more of the same, that they wanted change, but it was up against a fairly relentless campaign of project fear from the DUP.
“What we have here is kind of ‘So what? We’ll just stick with the same old same old same again’.”
However, when pressed on whether it was time to form an official opposition, he said there was a great deal of negotiating ahead on the Programme for Government first.
“Right now it’s time to go home and have a rest.”