Walking into the count at the Titanic Exhibition Center on Friday morning, there were whispers of an upset on the cards in the North Belfast constituency.
These rumors would turn out to be an omen of a bruising election for Colum Eastwood’s party, with the SDLP’s vote collapsing in several areas as nationalism rallied around the prospect of a Sinn Fein First Minister.
The Alliance surge also hurt the SDLP, who will be left with having to replace Ms Mallon as Infrastructure Minister until a new Executive is formed.
Indeed, early on Friday it seemed Ms Mallon knew the writing was on the wall herself. She made an extremely brief appearance at the count center before promptly exiting the building, and a career in elected politics, for now at least.
Sources say Ms Mallon privately conceded it was not going to be her day early on. It was quite tight in the end between Ms Mallon and Alliance’s Nuala McAllister, however Ms McAllister got over the line on Saturday evening.
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 every single person who came out to vote for me over that time,” she said, while sharing a picture of her with her children. “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 a MLA for the past 12 years. I want to thank every single person who came out to vote for me over that time. 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 those elected for the party could not avoid mentioning just how much of a blow the results had been for them.
Newly elected South Belfast MLA Matthew O’Toole summed up what happened when giving his victory speech on Saturday morning as the results continued to roll in.
“It’s been a long six weeks and it’s been a tough day for people in our party but I think people in South Belfast have again endorsed progressive social democratic politics and so I’m delighted to be returned by them,” he said.
“It’s a difficult day (for the SDLP), I don’t think anyone should underplay that, this is a tough day for our party. Our party has a really proud history, we’ve got amazing activists, we’ve got people who are proud of our contribution to this island.
“We’re still in the hunt, counts are still happening but I think it is a difficult day and there are people who won’t return to Stormont that I’m very sad about.
“I think it’s been clear there was a move within nationalism towards Sinn Fein as a result of a focus on the First Minister role and I think there was also a certain move within the progressive middle ground towards the Alliance Party and that has created a challenge for us.”
It’s hard to see where Colum Eastwood’s party goes from here, as Alliance have seemingly become a new force alongside the DUP and Sinn Fein.