Ex-DUP Alex Easton emerges as early Stormont winner in North Down
FORMER DUP assembly member Alex Easton last night emerged as one of the early winners in the Stormont Assembly election, topping the poll in North Down.
Securing his seat as an independent unionist, he was quick to dismiss suggestions that he would rejoin his former party.
It came after the DUP's Gavin Robinson indicated that the "door is open" to Mr Easton should he wish to return.
But describing standing as an independent as "liberating", he added: "I'll talk to all shades of unionist, but I am planning to stay as an independent unionist."
The fortune of one of his former party colleagues did not appear as bright last night with Peter Weir among those potentially facing the end of his Stormont career.
The former education minister was not polling well in Strangford with predictions that he may lose his seat.
Also fighting for his political survival in Strangford was the UUP's Mike Nesbitt, while his party leader Doug Beattie was also facing a scramble in Upper Bann.
The former soldier was polling behind Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd, who topped the poll, as well as the DUP and Alliance candidates running in the constituency.
Mr Nesbitt, however, was keen to play down speculation that he would lose his seat, maintaining that transfers could work in his favour.
"The tally will give you an idea about first preferences but once you start getting transfers it can be like a game of pin ball – these votes disappear in all sorts of unexpected directions, so who knows," he said.
But in a major blow for the UUP, Roy Beggs lost his seat in East Antrim. A veteran of the Assembly, he had served as an MLA for the past 24 years.
For the SDLP's Nichola Mallon, a massive battle to retain her seat in North Belfast was on the horizon last night, amid a surge by the Alliance Party. It was suggested that the infrastructure minister and party deputy leader could lose out to Alliance's Nuala McAllister, whose party appeared to have out-polled both the SDLP and UUP.
Ms Mallon's party colleague Pat Catney was also fighting for his seat in Lagan Valley.
Green Party leader Clare Bailey was also struggling amid predictions that her South Belfast seat was at risk.
As the counting continued at the Titanic centre, she was remaining optimistic that winning her seat could come down to transfers.
"Back in 2016 when I was first elected we were waiting on the transfers to get across the line," she said.
"We secured the seat and we held it in 2017, but again we were right up to the wire when they reduced the seats to five.
"I think we're looking at a similar scenario again this time."