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Reg Empey reflects on difficult night

Sir Reg Empey sounded unbowed but the strain of weeks of campaigning showed as he contemplated an electoral campaign which failed to produce a single seat.

His Conservative and Unionist alliance began to fragment before it had really started when Lady Sylvia Hermon said she was leaving to fight as an independent.

And as news of her landslide victory in North Down spread, Sir Reg admitted it had been a difficult election.

"I do think we need new ideas going forward and we put them. So far they have not attracted the level of support we wanted, but nevertheless it does not mean it was the wrong thing to do," he said.

Sir Reg lost out to fundamentalist Free Presbyterian minister the Rev William McCrea in a close-run battle for the only seat he realistically stood a chance of winning.

As he walked into the counting centre in Newtownabbey at the start of what would be a long and painful night, he clutched his red rosette to his chest and refused to speculate on the result.

Yet with the piles of ballots soon stacking up on Mr McCrea's shelves, the runes could be read from early on. In the end he only lost by just over 1,000 votes and could justifiably claim to have run the incumbent close.

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Yet on a night of high drama for East Belfast, the dedicated advocate for shipyard workers and East Belfast Assemblyman admitted afterwards he would have liked to have been there to have congratulated Alliance's Naomi Long on her most memorable victory of this election.

"In politics you have got to take risks if you believe in something. There is no point in being a shrinking violet," he ruminated.

Over in East Belfast, Peter Robinson admitted he had not wanted to fight the seat, preferring to concentrate on his First Minister's role, and perhaps Sir Reg's late entry into the South Antrim race will have played on the UUP leader's mind.

One DUP critic of the move at the time claimed Sir Reg would need a road map to find his way around the overwhelmingly suburban sprawl of the constituency, so unused was he to its contours, yet he won more than 10,000 votes in an at times nail-biting contest.

His party has become a self-styled opposition within the mandatory coalition and opposed the decision to take policing powers from Westminster at this stage.

For Mr McCrea it was broad smiles and congratulations, the victorious candidate appearing to stand a little straighter after a result which had been too close to call before the poll. He talked animatedly on his mobile phone and was the centre of attention for crowds of jubilant DUP supporters.

For the TUV, two young women sashayed about, their colourful dresses standing out amid the sea of grey pinstripe, yet it was a low-key result for the party.

Sammy Morrison, who fought East Antrim but polled only 1,826 votes, warmly congratulated the DUP's Sammy Wilson on his victory and admitted candidly the party had underperformed in its first Westminster election.

Mr Wilson for his part looked grave-faced and concerned when defending his leader Mr Robinson but more upbeat about his own performance, one of three DUP wins out of three at the count centre.

"People in Northern Ireland want one thing and they want to see politicians doing positive things to make their lives and their communities better," he said.

Sir Reg, who has done a valuable job as Stormont Employment Minister helping the jobless back to work, will be pondering that very same message as he picks up the pieces.

He and DUP leader Mr Robinson, both East Belfast MLAs, both lost out by narrow margins and both will be considering their futures.

While Mr McCrea thanked the Lord for his victory, Sir Reg was nowhere to be seen on the podium and in the end as he came up the stairs to face the cameras at the Valley Leisure Centre his step looked a little more leaden as he envisaged a Westminster term without an Ulster Unionist MP.

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