It was a “bittersweet” victory for the Ulster Unionists in East Antrim, with John Stewart the first to be elected after his colleague Roy Beggs was eliminated.
The DUP’s Gordon Lyons was also elected and said the UUP had failed to properly balance their vote, calling it “a disappointing night for unionism” overall.
Alliance had a major result by securing two MLAs with Stewart Dickson and nurse Danny Donnelly elected.
With a quota of 6,706 votes, Mr Stewart was elected on the third stage with 8,459 votes after Mr Beggs, the SDLP’s Siobhan McAlister and the Green Party’s Mark Bailey had already been eliminated.
Mr Stewart said he was “chuffed” to be the first MLA to be elected and said his party had gained around an extra 2,000 first preference votes since 2017.
“Obviously it’s a bittersweet moment. Today we’ve lost my colleague Roy Beggs who’s been a dedicated servant to East Antrim since 1998, one of the first into the Assembly back then,” he said. “I’m disappointed to lose Roy but delighted that I’ve increased my vote and been able to take a seat.”
Looking ahead to the new term, he said returning stable government was a priority. He added: “We’re now the second biggest party in East Antrim on votes and vote share, so we’re in touching distance of fighting to take that seat from the DUP at Westminster in 2024, it’s within striking distance now.”
Mr Lyons was elected at the fourth stage at which Sinn Fein’s Oliver McMullan was also eliminated.
“I’m delighted, I just want to thank everyone who took the time to come out and vote for myself and my running mate David Hilditch,” he said.
“In the case of the Ulster Unionists, they did a very poor job in balancing their vote in East Antrim, that’s cost unionism a seat and is very disappointing moving forward.”
During his election speech, he added: “What is clear in this election already is that when unionism is divided, it does not win.
“We warned that those who would win this election, if it was not our party, would be calling for a border poll and already we see that happening.”
The biggest media scrum of the night for East Antrim was reserved for Alliance, with Stewart Dickson embracing Danny Donnelly after a spectacular result.
Mr Donnelly said: “It’s brilliant. It’s been a long time coming, we’ve been doing this a couple of times but the people of East Antrim have put their faith in us and we’re delighted to get in there and start to work.”
In his victory speech, Stewart Dickson called it a “historic moment” for the Alliance in East Antrim as the first day they had ever elected two Assembly members in East Antrim.