Fermanagh farmer Tom Elliott was elected new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party last night, comfortably defeating rival Basil McCrea.
Long viewed as the favourite to succeed Sir Reg Empey, the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA saw off his Lagan Valley opponent by 643 votes to 294 — a 69% to 31% split.
And Elliott declared: “As Leader I will develop the Ulster Unionist Party once again as a leading force in Northern Ireland politics.
“I will bring forward a range of measures during the coming weeks to ensure the party is in a positive position to deliver policies and arrangements for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland.”
Almost 1,000 UUP members from all over Northern Ireland travelled to the Waterfront Hall in Belfast for the vote, which took almost three hours to be declared.
And having secured almost a third of those present, challenger McCrea had not been humiliated.
Attempting to assuage fears the result could re-open old wounds in the party, new leader Elliott — a long-standing Orange Order member and former UDR member — said he would ensure it would not become a “cold house” for McCrea and his supporters.
In turn McCrea praised the man who beat him as “excellent and wonderful”.
Almost a quarter of those who officially registered to take part in the vote were from Elliott’s constituency, arriving in five coaches from the Enniskillen area and Dungannon. But their numbers alone, put at around 250, were insufficient to win the night for Elliott, who was said to have won some waverers over with a competent speech which paid warm tribute to his predecessor Sir Reg.
Both men recieved several standing ovations though there were slow handclaps from a few members as the vote count wound towards 11pm.
In the end, cheers and applause erupted as party chairman David Campbell revealed 937 had taken part in the vote, with only one spoiled paper.
As he prepared to be back in Belfast early today for his first day in the job, Mr Elliott said: “This is a time of huge challenges for everyone here economically and socially and I am up for that challenge.
“I want to make sure that the grassroots of Ulster Unionism are brought with the party in the decision making process.”
Mr McCrea said he was “quite pleased” with the result and believed he had brought the Elliott camp in his direction, particularly over the prospect of ‘unity’ with the DUP.
Praising Mr Elliott as an “excellent and wonderful man”, he offered him the advice of Winston Churchill: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal, you only have to keep going on.”