Late on Friday night, Upper Bann provided a snapshot of all the difficulties facing unionism.
With Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd safely returned to Stormont, an uncomfortable night lay ahead for two of unionism’s biggest hitters.
Top of the list was the Ulster Unionist leader himself, Doug Beattie, who faced uncomfortable questions as he arrived at Magherafelt’s Meadowbank Sports Arena on Friday in a blaze of flash lights as a media scrum crowded around him.
Well short of the quota to retain his seat in a constituency which had already seen one high profile Stormont casualty in the SDLP’s Dolores Kelly, the sand beneath Beattie’s feet seemed to be shifting.
“That was one heck of a fight,” he said when, in the middle of a hot and steamy Saturday afternoon in the count arena as temperatures soared to 32 degrees, he edged over the line thanks to transfers from eliminated TUV candidate Darrin Foster, despite the TUV urging unionist voters not to support him after the UUP leader pulled out of rallies in protest against the NI Protocol.
Beattie had been sweating.
“My heart’s still pumping, I have to say,” he admitted.
Branded a traitor as the TUV and DUP-led rallies against the protocol took place in the constituency following his decision not to participate, one of his election posters was displayed with a noose around his neck.
It was a difficult few weeks for Beattie, who also caused controversy in the area with comments in a Belfast Telegraph interview that he would like to see an alternative sporting anthem “that doesn’t detract from God Save the Queen’. The TUV went on the attack, calling him “out of touch with grassroots unionism.”
And the more the attacks on Beattie continued, the more unionism as a whole was under threat. United we stand, divided we fall were the calls. But rather than heed their own advice from all sides, the divisions widened.
On Friday night an ebullient John O’Dowd seemed confident his fellow Sinn Fein man Liam Mackle was in place to join him at Stormont.
Beattie was under threat, so to, for a while onlookers believed, was Diane Dodds, though surplus from Jonathan Buckley and the TUV saw her safely past the post.
But the unionist split in Upper Bann had almost left the door ajar. It’s something that was mirrored across the country.
Overall the three unionist seats here were held. But it’s where the votes went that matters and it nearly cost the UUP leader his seat.
Votes in Upper Bann also shifted in the direction of the Alliance, with Eoin Tennyson claiming the fifth seat - a first for the party in the area.
Unionism squeezed through the narrow gap that remained.
It was all so far removed from the ‘Beattie bounce’ that had generated such a positive atmosphere around the party when he took over as leader last year, but after those heights, the come-down off the trampoline threatened to eject him over the safety net onto the seat of his pants.
As he sat back to reflect, Beattie was in a much more positive mood on Saturday. From being defensive, he steadied the ship, but remained unrepentant that the difficult choices he had made during the campaign had been ones he’d had to make.
“There’s always a chance that someone is going to lose. In Upper Bann I’ve had to take some unpopular decisions as party leader and that may well have had an effect on me personally,” he said.
“When you’re the leader of a party you have to lead. You have to make those decisions. I won’t be distracted from making those right decisions.”
He also remained steadfast in his belief that ‘angry unionism’ was not a vote-winning approach.
“I believe in confident, positive, optimistic unionism. Our messaging has to be tighter and we have to get that out there,” he said.
“The only way to fix unionism is to change the way we do business. Angry, negative unionism is turning people off. It might take a while to change that. But we need to do it.”
The messages from all quarters of unionism continue to be that unionism needs to be fixed. Agreeing on how to fix it will be the main problem. They all call for unionist unity, but as Upper Bann has shown, that’s easier said than done.
Both DUP candidates, Mr Buckley and Mrs Dodds, reiterated the need for the Government to urgently address the issues over the NI Protocol. That message isn’t changing.
And the TUV showed it can be a force in elections. The worry for unionism is that the TUV as a party may be able to make gains on the back of their NI Protocol stance, but at what cost to unionism in general?
In Upper Bann, the TUV candidate Darrin Foster polled well. But where the votes went almost handed Sinn Fein an extra bonus seat.
And as Mr O’Dowd took to the stand as the final results were declared, you could sense a certain disappointment that Liam Mackle had only just failed to join him in the Assembly.
While Beattie lambasted the unionist anger, Mrs Dodds was equally annoyed at the negativity of the SDLP, who, she said, had targeted her with election posters in the constituency, calling it a straight fight between her and Dolores Kelly.
“That was particularly against the DUP,” she said. “The lesson should be talk about your own campaign and what you have to offer, don’t focus on targeting someone else.”
That could be equally applied to Mr Beattie, who had been a target from within his own unionist community.
Where unionism goes from here is the big issue, but for the UUP leader, he’s still determined to embrace the positives.
“It will be like trying to turn an oil tanker around,” he admitted. “It could take time, but I still believe in that positive optimistic unionism.
“People can question my leadership all they want. I have set the direction. It’s up to the party to decide on the leader, but I believe that’s me. We have a direction of travel set that we need to follow.”
While Beattie lived to fight another day, it was a sad and quiet farewell for Dolores Kelly, who had been first elected as an MLA back in 2003.
There were hugs and farewells on Friday night when it became clear her vote wasn’t holding up after what had been perhaps the bitterest constituency battle.
Beattie was relieved not to have joined her leaving through the exit doors on Friday evening into the Magherafelt night. Saturday was a different day. And Monday will be a different day again.