Opinion

The vision, determination and courage of Seamus Mallon

Seamus Mallon, who died yesterday at the age of 83 after a short illness, was one of the giants of Irish politics over the last 50 years and at all stages of his career displayed vision, determination and courage.

He was a champion of constitutional nationalism, but also worked tirelessly on behalf of both traditions throughout his long period in public life, and was prepared to take on unionist opponents of power-sharing and republican supporters of violence with equal passion when the circumstances demanded it.

His principles never wavered from his earliest days in the civil rights movement, through his central involvement in the SDLP and during his key role in the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement.

Although he was a passionate advocate of progress on an all Ireland basis, he was always able to maintain good personal relationships with his neighbours in the mainly Protestant district of Markethill in Co Armagh where he lived all his life.

He was also completely fearless in the face of adversity, as was evident when he and the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble stood together at the scene of an appalling loyalist attack in 1998 which killed two friends, Catholic Damien Trainor and Protestant Philip Allen, in the mixed village of Poyntzpass not far from his home

It was an episode of enormous symbolic significance which in many ways created the climate in which the historic political breakthrough required at Stormont could become a reality a matter of weeks later.

Mr Mallon was uniquely qualified to take on the crucial position of deputy first minister as the partnership administration finally emerged after decades of upheaval and to steer it through such pivotal issues as policing reform.

When he eventually stood down for family reasons in 2001, he left our divided community in an immeasurably better position than he found it when he entered elected politics as an Armagh councillor some three decades earlier.

As a former primary school principal, he always had a gift for a telling phrase which he repeatedly demonstrated throughout his autobiography A Shared Home Place last year.

In the closing line, Mr Mallon quoted a particularly appropriate Greek proverb -`A society grows great when old men plants trees in whose shade they know they will never sit.'

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