A crestfallen Alasdair McDonnell lost his South Belfast seat to the DUP after 12 years as the area’s MP.

Politics is a blood sport and it is played out in full public view. Watching TV into the early hours I was amazed at the stoicism of many defeated candidates from all parties.

I was particularly struck by the humility and grace with which the three SDLP MPs accepted their fate. It was a bittersweet moment.

The memories of past SDLP victories flooded my mind. John Hume in 1983. Seamus Mallon in 1986. Eddie McGrady in 1987. And Joe Hendron in 1992. I was there too for the start of the gradual decline. In 2001 in this newspaper I wrote what a veteran BBC reporter then described as ‘very brave article’ which basically said that Sinn Féin had given the SDLP a bloody nose and that the SDLP needed to wake up to that threat. Years of political activity had taught me that the public did not do sentimentality when it comes to politicians unless American or dead.

The failure of the SDLP over the past 25 years to reignite any passion with the electorate despite their hard work at constituency level or their cerebral contributions to political debate has been a real tragedy.

The SDLP was a party driven by real values and grounded by a desire to improve the lives of everyone, immaterial of background. It was never a narrow nationalistic or sectarian party – despite the accusation by some. It was a broad church. And for most of its history it took on the Herculean task of stopping society descending into an abyss of cyclical violence. Its political generosity over-reached itself and therein lay the seeds of its demise.

There were years spent in denial about the risks to the SDLP from their dealings with Sinn Féin, particularly those by John Hume. It’s doubtful though whether Hume or those who loyally defended him, if given a second chance, would do anything differently. To their eternal credit politics won the peace. But as the recent elections show we may have won peace but we are not at peace with one another.

Unionism is solid in the east and republicans equally solid in the west. Beating the SDLP into the ground was like clubbing a seal. The SDLP failed to recognise that the enemy was Sinn Féin. It tried to out left and then out green Sinn Féin – both huge failures.

The recent election was topped and bottomed by two headlines they could have done without. The first was an ill conceived and clumsy appeal for a ‘ progressive’ pact. It was too clever by far and proved too complex for anyone to approve. It spooked liberal unionists which the SDLP needed in all three of its constituencies where it had sitting MPs.

Bizarrely the leadership, not content with framing their campaign with a negative noose, then embarked on an even more risky strategy by echoing Sinn Féin calls for a border poll. The subtleties between the SDLP proposal and Sinn Féin’s were lost on the political commentariat and more so on the electorate. If moderate unionists hadn’t heard him the first time, they did the second time. Hopes of a spring tide were evaporating.

Ironically and somewhat perversely the Sinn Féin wins have left Westminster without an Irish nationalist presence for the first time since Daniel O’Connell. The next best thing for Irish nationalism is the Newry born Labour MP, Conor McGinn. The promises of Sinn Féin to stand up to the Tories and put manners on the DUP are somewhat hollow now as their policy of abstentionism makes it easier for the beleaguered prime minister to create a government aided and abetted by Sinn Féin’s nemesis Arlene Foster and the DUP.

The Sinn Féin obsession with outpolling the DUP fuelled the latter’s support amongst unionists to an all time high. The former first minister who was on the ropes only a few months ago is now queen of all she surveys. And somehow this is presented as a republican victory.

Clearly Sinn Féin like the rest of us didn’t anticipate a hung parliament. As the SDLP contemplate the end of a political journey I couldn’t help but think of Shakespeare “all the voyage of life is bound in shallows and miseries. On such a sea we are now afloat.”

In truth they deserved better.