Two of the most historic bastions of unionism have fallen to the inexorable rise of Sinn Fein
The republican party siezed an Assembly seat in South Antrim for the first time — and look set to follow suit in Lagan Valley later today.
Mitchel McLaughlin topped the poll in South Antrim, the former citadel of ex-Ulster Unionist leader Lord Molyneaux.
He came in almost 300 first preference votes ahead of the DUP's Rev William McCrea, who was also elected on the first count.
Both were newcomers to the constituency but it had been widely predicted Mr McLaughlin would have to slug it out for the sixth seat.
Other parties had claimed the Sinn Fein machine was less visible on the doorsteps than they had expected, but Mr McLaughlin revealed his canvassing had even included the rather "desolate communities" of the Rathenraw and Spring Farm estates.
Mr McLaughlin generously explained his topping of the poll was more the product of other parties vote management strategies than anything else.
But he also argued his party had built on the "very strong performance" of his predecessor candidate Martin Meehan who inadvertently claimed to have been elected last time — before the count was over.
Meehan seemed to have picked up enough votes lst night but gained only 24 transfers over the next nine counts. Yesterday McLaughlin had no need of transfers.
In contrast, however, Mr Butler was kept waiting 20 miles down the road. Even after a fifth count, as exhausted election officials in the Lagan Valley Leisureplex called it a night, he was still just over 800 votes shy of the 5,976 quota.
But the elimination of his SDLP rival Marietta Farrell should put Mr Butler over the mark when counting resumes this morning.
While McLaughlin, Sinn Fein's national chairperson, had been parachuted into South Antrim from Foyle where he had failed to unseat the SDLP's Mark Durkan in the last Westminster election, Butler had slowly built on his base as a Lisburn councillor.
Back in South Antrim, Mr McCrea said: "I am sad Sinn Fein have been elected in this constituency but I am absolutely thrilled that we have two excellent candidates well positioned to join me as elected Assemblymen."
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