We'll play pivotal role in next government, say the DUP
The DUP is poised to play a key role in forming the next Government after a night of electoral drama.
Deputy leader Nigel Dodds said the party could prove "crucial" in the negotiations set to dominate national politics in the coming days.
"And not just perhaps in terms of the formation of the Government but in terms of the full five years of the parliament," he said.
But the DUP also sustained a massive blow in South Antrim, where veteran MP the Rev William McCrea lost his seat to Ulster Unionist Danny Kinahan.
In the first major political upset of the night, there were reports from midnight onwards indicating the result was hanging on a knife-edge.
And in the end just before 2am Mr Kinahan pulled ahead, gaining the UUP a seat in the House of Commons which it lost in the fall-out from the party's link with the Conservatives in 2010 which resulted in Lady Sylvia Hermon becoming an independent.
Mr Kinahan said he was "ecstatic" and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said: "We're back on the green benches."
But Peter Robinson's party also firmly ruled out taking any Cabinet positions or forming a coalition.
Instead it could prove pivotal in helping Conservative leader David Cameron stay on as Prime Minister - but will seek a new financial package for Northern Ireland in return.
The party has already demanded the abolition of the so-called 'bedroom tax' and maintaining current levels of spending on national defence.
And Mr Robinson has also insisted on the creation of a Commission for the Union in an attempt to outflank the Scottish Nationalists who swept to power last night - on course to increase their House of Commons seats from six to more than 50.
On the basis of a BBC exit poll, the results of the general election looked likely to produce a less 'hung' Parliament than many pundits and polls had predicted for weeks.
With the Conservatives on course for as many as 316 seats, DUP MPs could agree to support a minority Conservative administration on a 'confidence and supply' basis.
That amounts to an arrangement of the DUP backing the Conservatives in any votes of 'no confidence', while the Tories in turn 'supply' a number of the DUP's key demands.
Mr Dodds, the DUP's leader in Westminster in the last term, described the poll as "very interesting".
"We have always said throughout the campaign that the DUP could play a pivotal role in the next parliament of the United Kingdom," he said.
"Obviously we have seen the exit poll, it's a very interesting poll. There are other polls that show a slightly different picture and it's very, very early in the evening.
"I'm not going to speculate too much on the basis of the exit poll. We have to see the results and how accurate they are, but clearly whatever the outcome of the election, the DUP is going to be crucial.
"And not just perhaps in terms of the formation of the Government but in terms of the full five years of the parliament, where votes could be extremely tight indeed."
Mr Dodds reiterated his party's position that it was not seeking any formal coalition with ministerial posts.
"What we have been saying is we will always act in the best interest of Northern Ireland and, of course, the United Kingdom as a whole," he said. "We want to see stable Government for the United Kingdom."
His comments came as the DUP's Gavin Robinson beat of Alliance deputy leader Naomi Long in the cockpit contest of East Belfast.
With a number of ballot boxes from Alliance areas still to be counted around 2am, the Belfast Telegraph's polling partner organisation Lucid Talk calculated the DUP was around 7% ahead.
In South Belfast there were early reports that incumbent MP and SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell had managed to hold onto the seat despite the threat from Sinn Fein's Mairtin O Muilleoir.
And in Upper Bann the DUP's David Simpson retained the seat despite a strong performance by Ulster Unionist Jo-Anne Dobson who ran a fairly close second.
The first actual result came shortly before 1.20am when the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson was returned for the fifth time as MP for Lagan Valley - on a majority increased by around 1,000 votes.
In relation to the likelihood of inter-party negotiations in the next few days, Mr Donaldson said: said: "Let's wait and see what happens.
"We are not going to put our cards on the table at this stage."
Then came the West Tyrone result, where Sinn Fein's Pat Doherty retained the seat, albeit on a total vote reduced by around 1,000.
The SDLP's Mark Durkan retained Foyle, with an increased majority, and Ian Paisley won again in North Antrim, Lady Sylvia held onto North Down and the DUP's Jim Shannon retained his Strangford seat.