Going into the count at the Titanic Exhibition Center on Friday morning there were whispers of an upheaval on the cards in the North Belfast constituency.
As soon as we walked through the doors, rumors spread that SDLP deputy leader and incumbent infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon was about to lose her seat.
The rumors would prove to herald a deadly election for Colum Eastwood’s party, with the SDLP vote plummeting in several areas as nationalism rallied around the prospect of a Sinn Fein premier.
The Alliance push has also hurt the SDLP, which will have to replace Ms Mallon as infrastructure minister until a new executive is formed.
Indeed, early Friday, it seemed that Mrs. Mallon knew the writing was on the wall herself. She made an extremely brief appearance at the tally center before quickly leaving the building, and a career in elected politics, for now at least.
Sources say Ms Mallon privately conceded it wouldn’t be her day early. It was pretty tight at the end between Ms Mallon and Alliance’s Nuala McAllister, but Ms McAllister crossed the line on Saturday night.
In a tweet on Saturday, Ms Mallon said goodbye to frontline politics and said it was a “privilege” to serve North Belfast.
“I want to thank everyone who came out to vote for me during this time,” she said, while sharing a photo of herself with her children. “It’s time for a new chapter and lots and lots of time with these three.”
It has been a privilege to serve the people of North Belfast as a Councilor and then an MP for the past 12 years. I would like to thank everyone who came to vote for me during this period. It’s time for a new chapter and lots and lots of time with these three. pic.twitter.com/DqaFJN8kS1
—Nichola Mallon (@NicholaMallon) May 7, 2022
Ms Mallon was joined in defeat by SDLP veterans Pat Catney and Dolores Kelly, and even party lawmakers couldn’t avoid mentioning how bad the results had been for them.
Newly elected South Belfast MP Matthew O’Toole summed up what happened during his victory speech on Saturday morning as the results continued to come in.
“It has been six long weeks and a difficult day for members of our party, but I think the people of South Belfast have once again supported progressive social democratic politics and so I am delighted to be fired by them,” he said.
“It’s a tough day (for the SDLP), I don’t think anyone should play it down, it’s a tough day for our party. Our party has a really proud history, we have amazing activists, we have people who are proud of our contribution to this island.
“We’re still on the hunt, the counts are still going on but I think it’s a tough day and there are people who won’t be coming back to Stormont that I’m very sad about.
“I think it’s clear there has been a movement within nationalism towards Sinn Fein because of the focus on the role of the prime minister and I think there has also been some movement within the progressive middle ground towards the Alliance party and that created a challenge for us.”
It’s hard to see where Colum Eastwood’s party is headed, as Alliance has apparently emerged as a new force alongside the DUP and Sinn Fein.