Strangford: UUP's Mike Nesbitt tops the poll but describes it as a bittersweet day for party
It was a bittersweet moment for Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt in Strangford where he topped the poll on an otherwise difficult day for his party.
However, after a tense 10 stages of counting at the Aurora Leisure Centre in Bangor, his party colleague Philip Smith retained the UUP's second seat in the constituency in a narrow victory over Joe Boyle of the SDLP.
The second UUP seat in Strangford had previously been won by David McNarry in 2011, but then lost when the veteran politician defected to Ukip.
The DUP defended its three seats, returning former ministers Michelle McIlveen, Simon Hamilton and Jonathan Bell. Mr Bell dedicated his win to his mother who recently passed away, declaring in his acceptance speech, "this one's for you mum".
Ulster Unionist relief meant heartbreak for the SDLP after Mr Boyle missed out at his fourth attempt to win the first ever nationalist Assembly seat in Strangford.
Mr Boyle said it would be his last attempt after being narrowly defeated in 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2016.
"This is the exact same position I have been in three times before, so I won't say I was too hopeful," he said. "This was my last year running, my last chance, I will be 60 soon.
"Strangford is a difficult constituency. I don't think there is any other constituency where you are up against three ministers and a party leader."
Mr Nesbitt topped the poll on first preference votes just ahead of the DUP's Michelle McIlveen, but described it as "bittersweet" as he voiced his concerns about whether his party's second candidate, Philip Smith, would be elected.
In his acceptance speech he paid tribute to Mr Boyle.
"Democracy can be cruel ... you put yourself in a lonely place and sometimes a hurtful place," he said.
"Does anyone know what it feels like to be Joe Boyle? He has stood four times and come very close - at lunchtime he must have felt he had an unassailable lead only to have it whittled and whittled away.
"I just want to say how deeply sorry I am."
Speaking earlier, Mr Nesbitt said he was "shocked, pleased and very thankful" to top the poll with 4,673 votes.
"But it is bittersweet because I have a running mate ... I would rather we had come in fifth and sixth," he added.
Mr Smith joked he had been ready to go home at lunchtime, but was glad he had stayed.
"It was great to see Mike topping the poll, but to retain our second seat was the cherry on the top," he said.
Ms McIlveen was also elected on the first count, with 4,663 votes, and said she was pleased but admitted to being exhausted after the campaign.
Her party colleagues Simon Hamilton and Jonathan Bell were both elected on the seventh stage of the count.
Mr Bell said the party had been aiming for four seats in the constituency. However, he thanked the constituents who elected him for the "privilege and opportunity" to represent them once again.
"I want to dedicate this victory to my mum who passed away," he said.
"She sacrificed a huge amount to put her boys through school. So mum, this one's for you."
Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong was elected along with Mr Smith on the tenth and final stage of the count.
She paid tribute to her predecessor Kieran McCarthy in her acceptance speech, and also spoke of her pride at being the third woman elected for the Alliance Party yesterday, after Naomi Long in East Belfast and Paula Bradshaw in South Belfast.
The final result in Strangford saw the same party breakdown with three DUP seats, two UUP and one Alliance. Mr Smith and Ms Armstrong are new faces.