How will the SDLP fill void left by Conall McDevitt?

When I arrived at Conall McDevitt's front door on Wednesday night, his young son came bounding down the stairs.

The outgoing South Belfast MLA introduced me, and, as we made our way through the house towards the back garden, his son asked: "Daddy, are these people friends of yours?"

"They're journalists," came the answer.

I will always defend the right of the media to investigate any information we think is in the public interest (and some completely erroneous suggestions about my colleagues' handling of this story were printed over the summer).

Image caption Conall McDevitt is quitting politics

However, having known Conall since his days as a young press officer at the time of the Good Friday Agreement talks, I found it impossible to take any satisfaction in my role as a kind of political undertaker.

More recently I witnessed first hand his enthusiastic work co-ordinating the Stormont International Developments Awards - something that took time and dedication but didn't garner much media attention.

Cynics may feel it's a fair come-uppance for a politician whose high-minded rhetoric could verge on preaching; a case of a stone and a man living in a glasshouse .

However, the fluent style that annoyed some inspired others, and the SDLP is left with a real void when it comes to appealing to younger voters.

The SDLP has to fill vacancies on the Policing Board, the health committee and on its Haass talks' negotiating team.

In South Belfast, a selection battle expected in 2015 has been brought forward a couple of years.

Former broadcaster Ferghal McKinney appears to be Alasdair McDonnell's chosen successor at Stormont should, as expected, the SDLP leader vacate his assembly seat to concentrate on Westminster, in line with the forthcoming ban on double-jobbing.

But the circulation of a letter, by Belfast councillor Claire Hanna, indicating her strong interest in a nomination, means there will be a contest.

Others may put their names forward.

There's been speculation about party press officer Caroline McNeill, who worked as an intern for Hillary Clinton and hails from Finaghy.

There are also suggestions that a bruising battle could be avoided by picking two nominees - one to replace Conall McDevitt immediately, another to replace Alasdair McDonnell if, and when, he leaves Stormont.

As the media and the SDLP move on, will Conall McDevitt be remembered as the SDLP's "lost leader".

Or could we see him re-enter the Stormont fray in a few years' time?

On Wednesday, the man himself wasn't prepared to countenance any talk of a comeback.

But on Thursday the SDLP deputy leader, Dolores Kelly, supported the notion that, after paying a heavy price, he might yet return.

Either way I hope next time I knock on his front door it will be in happier circumstances.

PS. Since this was first published Conall McDevitt has contacted me to clarify that he will not be re-entering public life in the future.