A jubilant Tom Elliott said that Fermanagh South Tyrone “doesn’t belong to Bobby Sands” after taking the seat in defiance of bookies and pundits alike.
The former UUP leader topped the poll with 23,608 votes, over 500 ahead of Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said: “This is the best result unionism has had for over a decade.
“We have taken a seat off Sinn Fein. That is a signal which is going to go across the whole of Northern Ireland.
“Unionism is no longer on the back foot.”
The party leader embraced Mr Elliott in a passionate hug amid roaring supporters in Omagh Leisure Complex in the early morning of Friday after the result was revealed.
The seat had been subject to a unionist pact between the DUP and UUP.
The battle for Fermanagh South Tyrone – a seat once held by IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands – has always sat on a razor’s edge.
In 2010 Ms Gildernew won by just four votes – a margin reduced to a single vote after a legal challenge. On that occasion SDLP voters helped rescue her from an agreed unionist candidate though it was unclear why this was not repeated in 2015.
As the count progressed yesterday morning the UUP and Sinn Fein ballot papers sat beside each other while pundits tried from afar to count what if any difference there was between the two.
Rumours – which later turned out to be true – began to spread from all quarters that Elliott was ahead by 500 votes, with even republican sources apparently confirming it.
On the floor of the count, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness appeared on either side of Ms Gildernew, offering moral support for an obviously valued party colleague and former Stormont agriculture minister.
The word soon spread that the body language and facial expressions of Ms Gildernew and her supporters were down, while McGuinness and Adams had their phones “stuck to their ears”.
Further rumours spread that Sinn Fein called for a recount, which Ms Gildernew later confirmed was true, but this was rejected.
Mr Elliott and Ms Gildernew could be seen several times in close conversation with the count chief, listening intently.
Finally as their discussions broke up the Sinn Fein and UUP teams walked off in opposite directions, Mr Elliott’s face beaming and with his arms in the air, his entourage also celebrating.
Nobody waited for any formal announcement and the news immediately shot out from Omagh across the Province – Elliott had caused a major upset and tilted the Fermanagh South Tyrone see-saw back towards unionism.
Shortly afterwards there was wild cheering among unionists when he was mobbed at the podium before the formal announcements.
Early in his speech, just after 5.30am, he paid tribute to the TUV, UKIP, DUP, loyal orders and victims’ sector for their electoral support,
“This was a combined effort,” he said. “It just shows you what you can do when there is a combined effort.”
The former UDR man also noted that it was the 70th anniversary of VE Day and that many had given their lives in WWII to preserve the democracy they were enjoying.
The new MP acknowledged early on that Ms Gildernew had quickly come to him to congratulate him on his victory, to which he responded: “Fair play.”
But slamming Sinn Fein’s abstentionism, he vowed to “fight for welfare reform” and “taxation issues” at Westminster.
“This constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the most westerly constituency in the United Kingdom, is not a green constituency.
“It doesn’t belong to Bobby Sands, it belongs to the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone and that is who I intend to represent.”
The constituency was once again “red, white and blue” he told his screaming supporters.
He also noted attempts to “disenfranchise” voters in Moygashel recently when their polling station was closed down, but paid tribute to villagers for making the effort to vote elsewhere.
In her speech Ms Gildernew pulled out a dazzling smile worthy of the actual victor, and vowed: “I am not going anywhere,” which prompted wild cheers from her supporters. She affirmed that there was much work to be done in the area.
Republican reverence for former IRA hunger striker Sands hung in the air when she thanked workers from across the entire island who had come and worked for her campaign.
Prompting both wild cheers and jeers, she said: “In our hearts this seat will always be Bobby Sands’.”
Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams held an impromptu press conference as they left the count centre, in which Mr McGuinness inisted that Mr Elliott going to Westminster would in no way improve Northern Ireland’s predicament regarding welfare reform.