In the end, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Doug Beattie was defiant.
“I will not be derailed, I will not be put off course,” he insisted, after holding on to his seat – just about – in Upper Bann.
Earlier in the count, he was not so confident. On 5,199 first preferences, he started well behind the quota (9,351), two DUP candidates, and not that far in front of the ultimately eliminated TUV hopeful Darrin Foster.
The decorated British army veteran was in a sweat, battling for his political survival as both MLA and party leader. Transfers from the hardliner TUV were unlikely.
It took until the eighth count before Beattie, in his first test at the ballot box in charge of his party, scraped over the line.
A defeat would have been a death blow for his brand of progressive, liberal unionism. Although bloodied, he remained unbowed.
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“As a party leader I have had to make difficult decisions,” he told The Irish Times afterwards.
“I had to say difficult things and maybe that didn’t resonate with people in Upper Bann, but I still had to do it. I had to do it for the whole of Northern Ireland as a [party] leader.
“If they don’t like it, sometimes they will protest against it.”
Even a narrow victory is still a victory, and Beattie was intent on building on his credentials, despite a poor election overall for his party.
“There are two choices here: the first choice is confident, positive, optimism unionism; or the second choice is angry, negative, pessimistic unionism. Choose what you want,” he said.
“I choose the former. Others may want the latter, but that is not the way I want to go. People may not like my direction but I don’t see the alternative.”
Beattie said it would take “two, three, four election cycles” before his mission is achieved. It is strategy he is focusing on, not tactics.
But will he still be at the helm in elections to come?
“I believe I will be, but the choice is never mine,” he said. “Every year we vote for a leader. If they vote me in, I will be there fighting as a leader and creating more leaders. That is what I do.
“If the party decides they don’t want Doug Beattie, they will get somebody else. That is the way we work. We are a democratic party.”
Former Stormont education minister John O’Dowd – who was briefly stand-in deputy first minister when Martin McGuinness ran for Irish president – topped the poll, on 9,242 first preferences.
The DUP strongly polled from the off. Incumbent Jonathan Buckley took 8,869 votes on the first count, while former economy minister Diane Dodds – standing in the constituency for the first time – was on 6,548.
Buckley was returned first, and brought Dodds with him. Once safe, Dodds took aim at the SDLP, who she accused of running a “negative campaign” against the DUP.
“The lesson should be to talk about your own policies, not someone else’s. That is the way to get elected,” she said. It was salt in the wound for the SDLP’s Dolores Kelly who lost her seat.
As elsewhere, the middle ground shifted to Alliance. In Upper Bann, Eóin Tennyson took the fifth and final seat to become the party’s first ever MLA in the constituency.
Understandably emotional, he would be forgiven for a touch of hyperbole. “I was always told politics in Northern Ireland would be orange and green,” he said. “I think today we have smashed that narrative.”
Five seats filled: John O’Dowd (Sinn Féin), Jonathan Buckley (DUP), Diane Dodds (DUP), Doug Beattie (UUP), Eóin Tennyson (Alliance).