Northern Ireland news

Seamus Mallon: A giant of politics in the north of Ireland

Political Correpsondent John Manley looks back on the life and times of a man who personified constitutional nationalism.

Seamus Mallon at his former school Abbey CBS in Newry in 2008. Picture by Mal McCann

WHILE fate conspired against Seamus Mallon to deny him the leadership of the SDLP, he will nonetheless be remembered as a giant of politics in what he always termed "the north of Ireland".

MP for Newry and Armagh and Deputy First Minister in Stormont's first post-Good Friday Agreement administration, the former schoolteacher was renowned for his forthrightness and total opposition to violence, whether it emanated from republicans, loyalists or the British state.

He was firmly on the conservative, centrist wing of the SDLP, his political values closely mirroring those of the Church.

Seamus Frederick Mallon was born in 1936 in Markethill, Co Armagh, a predominantly unionist village. His father Frank was a primary school principal in nearby Mullaghbrack, while his mother Jane (née O'Flaherty) originated in Co Donegal, a place that remained close to her son throughout his life.

Educated at the Abbey Christian Brothers Grammar School in Newry and St Patrick's Grammar School, Armagh, the young Séamus was a keen Gaelic footballer, playing at club level for Middletown, Keady Dwyers, Queen's University and Crossmaglen Rangers, as well as at county level.

After leaving school he attended St Joseph's teacher training college on the outskirts of Andersonstown in west Belfast, later recalling in his memoir A Shared Home Place that he would have "loved to go to Queen's University to study law" and regretted that he never did.

Following his teacher training his first post was in St Joseph's in Newry, what was described then as a 'secondary modern' school, where his pupils included future Northern Ireland goalkeeper Pat Jennings and boxer Dan McAlinden.

His next job saw him succeed his father as principal of Mullaghbrack primary school.

During this period he became involved in theatre groups and later staged productions, including Oklahoma and West Side Story with the girls at St Catherine's College in Armagh and going on to jointly form a theatre group in the city.

Seamus met his wife Gertrude (née Cush) when they were both 15. She was from Armagh and they would frequent dances and cafés in and around the city. Gertrude later became a nurse and the couple were married in 1964, with their only child Orla born five years later. The family built a bungalow on the edge of Markethill, where Seamus lived until his death. He was a keen gardener, who particularly treasured his roses and vegetables.

He also became politically aware during the 1960s, a time when discrimination against Catholics was rife in unionist dominated Northern Ireland.

In his memoir published last year, he recalled how a unionist councillor with the power to allocate houses responded to a neighbour's request for a new home with: "No Catholic pig or his litter will get a house in Markethill while I'm here."

This set a campaign in motion, out of which grew Mid Armagh Anti Discrimination Committee, and then as the first 11+ generation came of age across the north, such groups coalesced to become the civil rights movement. Now in his 30s, Seamus joined marches in Armagh and Newry, encountering "snarling sectarianism" from Paisleyites and brutality at the hands of the RUC.

He became involved in the fledgling SDLP and was elected to Armagh district council in 1973, where he spent the following 16 years. On the council he built relations with unionists, among them council chairman Charlie Armstrong, a member of the UDR murdered by an IRA car bomb in 1983 in the car park of the council buildings. He was also elected to the first power-sharing assembly in 1973 and to the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention in 1975, while also serving briefly in the Seanad in the early 1980s.

His council colleague's death was among a catalogue of republican and loyalist killings in what became known as the 'murder triangle', centred around north Armagh, including the Miami Showband massacre and the dozens of others carried out by the IRA and so-called Glennane Gang.

A strident critic of IRA violence, he was also dogged in highlighting collusion between the security forces and loyalists, a stance that put his own life in danger.

In 1986, following Jim Nicholson's resignation from Westminster in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Mallon was elected MP for Newry and Armagh, which he held for nearly 20 years, stepping down undefeated in 2005.

The emergence of the peace process in the early 1990s, led by his party leader John Hume and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, created problems for Mallon, who by this time was deputy leader of the SDLP.

"He had strong reservations about the Hume-Adams talks," recalls former SDLP agriculture minister Bríd Rodgers.

"Séamus felt Sinn Féin were using us and that they were out to destroy the SDLP – and in many ways he was right."

The former Upper Bann MLA said her colleague resented how Sinn Féin and the IRA described themselves as republicans.

"Seamus regarded himself as a republican and felt they had sullied the name of republicanism," she said.

The relationship between the SDLP leader and his deputy was very often fractious but the pair usually reconciled their differences.

"For such a gregarious man, John was very much a loner in political life, reluctant to keep the party informed about matters important to the development of its strategy and policies; notably the early moves in the peace process," Mallon noted in his memoir.

The deputy's fears about the republican movement exploiting the SDLP appear well-founded. He believed his party needed to protect its place as the foremost voice of Irish nationalism, while his leader felt engagement with Sinn Féin would benefit the SDLP.

"When we entered into discussions with Sinn Féin, we handed the baton on to them in many ways," he later recalled.

"Maybe it was the price we had to pay for peace, but unfortunately we also legitimised them."

The Hume-Adams dialogue ultimately helped deliver an IRA ceasefire and the start of the negotiations aimed at securing a lasting peace.

After faltering while John Major was prime minister, the dynamic of the negotiations changed significantly when Tony Blair's Labour government swept to power in 1997.

Yet violence continued to cast a shadow over the efforts to secure a lasting peace. In December 1997, the LVF shot dead Philip Allen and Damien Trainor in Poyntzpass, two long-time friends, one a Protestant, the other Catholic. It was here that Mallon and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble made a spontaneous gesture of solidarity with the dead friends' families and attended their funerals together.

Agreement was finally secured following arduous negotiations on Good Friday 1998.

Mallon later characterised his role as ensuring nothing was nodded through without in-depth discussion. "I suppose I would be called stubborn," he later wrote.

He described the peace process as a "triumph" for John Hume and the culmination of three decades of work by the former Foyle MP.

Despite his initial scepticism about the peace process, the Newry and Armagh MP played a key role in the negotiations that led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, famously dubbing it "Sunningdale for slow learners", a reference to the failed power-sharing agreement from a quarter of a century before.

"It was the pinnacle of everything he had worked for," says Brid Rodgers.

In the institutions which were established after the May 1998 referendum, Seamus Mallon became the inaugural Deputy First Minister, a role of equal standing to that of First Minister David Trimble. His appointment was in part down to John Hume's failing health, but he later recalled: "He (Hume) was the vision man; I was the operator."

In his book, he described working with Trimble as a "rollercoaster ride".

"He was both a highly volatile man and a highly intelligent man who was under immense political pressure," he wrote.

The institutions were also under constant pressure in their formative days, largely due to wrangling over IRA decommissioning and a general lack of trust.

In July 1999, with a full power-sharing executive yet to be formed, Seamus Mallon resigned as deputy first minister, frustrated by Trimble's weakness within his own party and the Ulster Unionists' consequent boycott of the institutions.

"I was very reluctant to do it," he recalled in his memoir, "but I felt the deadlocked process needed a kick and resignation was the only way I had of kicking it."

He was reinstated deputy first minister five months later but devolution was never on stable footing. Trimble resigned as first minister in July 2001 in protest at the IRA's failure to decommission, forcing Mallon to step down too, though in a brief partnership with Reg Empey, a semblance of the devolved leadership was maintained, albeit unofficial.

In September 2001, when John Hume announced that he was stepping down as SDLP leader, his deputy was expected to finally take the party's top job, but ruled himself out due to his wife's deteriorating health. Gertrude was increasingly ill with dementia and weeks earlier had suffered serious burns in a household accident. She died in 2016.

"So I had to decide – which was my greater responsibility, to lead the SDLP or to look after my very sick wife? – and I decided it was to look after her," he recalled in his book, noting how Gertrude had made "many great sacrifices during the dog days of the 1970s and early 80s".

While he remained an important counsel to new SDLP leader Mark Durkan and continued to serve at Westminster, Mallon's political career was winding down by the time Stormont collapsed in 2002 amid allegations of spying.

He officially retired from politics in 2005 ahead of the Westminster election, when the Newry and Armagh seat was relinquished to Sinn Féin.

He remained a political animal in retirement, continuing to pronounce on matters with characteristic candor, whether it was criticising the then SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell or suggesting that a united Ireland should require a weighted majority north of the border.

Principled, stubborn, deliberate and determined, Seamus Mallon's political legacy survives in Stormont's restored institutions and the now almost universal acceptance that Ireland can only be reunited through peaceful means.

 

 

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