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'All of this is nothing but abject and total defeat'

Published 12/10/2015

Seamus Mallon with granddaughters Grace (10), Maria (7) and Lara (5)
Seamus Mallon with granddaughters Grace (10), Maria (7) and Lara (5)
Seamus Mallon with the family circle

An edited version of the speech by former SDLP deputy leader and deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon at the dinner in his honour in Dublin at the weekend.

During these 40-odd years, we saw at first hand, the futility of violence, the awfulness of human suffering and concerted attempts to tip Northern Ireland into outright civil war. To prevent that, down all those years, two things were essential, one being that the political process was kept alive, and the second, in the words of Martin Luther King, "we had to hew out of the mountain of despair the precious stone of hope."

Without those two prerequisites, we would have no Good Friday Agreement, no ending of violence, and no hope for the immediate future. Thankfully, both of those prerequisites were achieved.

The precious stone of hope was salvaged from suffering of 30-odd years, showed to all of us and to the world that a new beginning was possible. That a new way of life could come from the collision of minds within the political process, rather than that from the rattle of gunfire or naked screams of sectarian hatred.

Politics is a long game. If we focus only on the short term, we can lose heart. From the Catholic Relief Act to Emancipation.

From the first Home Rule Bill to the last, from the land war to the final land settlement - all took decades. From the Union to eventual repeal - more than a century.

If at present there are difficulties, the achievements of our party over the last half century should give us hope. The political framework in Northern Ireland today is, in no small measure, the work of the SDLP. As I said to our party conference in 1999: "We hold no guns. We keep no bombs. We impose no conditions. We exclude nobody. And we are fiercely proud of that."

That shortfall in the politics of reconciliation is the challenge that remains for Alasdair [McDonnell, SDLP leader] and the party. I am unlikely to see it achieved. To date, I must be happy with our achievements.

Am I disappointed?

The cliche is that all political careers end in failure. Certainly, I have known political disappointment and political failure.

Not bitterness, but anger that we in the SDLP did not get due recognition and have now been left on the sidelines.

In that spirit, let me say I applaud current efforts to make 1916 commemorations truly inclusive. In the event, the men and women of 1916 received a retrospective democratic endorsement which more recent violence, including against this State, has never obtained.

But our primary focus should not be on the past. Our primary responsibility is to be good ancestors who leave our descendants a society at peace with themselves and their neighbours and served by a political process which has integrity and vision.

I wonder, how will our generation measure up to that responsibility? Is it fair to ask if the North of Ireland is fast becoming a failed administrative entity? I fear it is, but I will leave the judgment to history.

The role of politics as I saw it, then and now, is to allow people to talk to each other, rather than at each other. To enable people to listen to others, rather than to the sound of their own voices, or of their own particular type of drumbeat. That the mission of politics is to try and solve apparently intractable problems with the power of words and accommodation of the other person's viewpoint, rather than the rattle of gunfire and the naked screams of sectarian hatred. I said in 1999, and I say it again now, that: "The people in Northern Ireland belong to each other - that the we's and the they's will sink or swim together".

Alasdair and his colleagues will have to deal with the complex political legacy of Northern Ireland. Various ingenious contrivances have been tried - partition of course was one such contrivance. The first Stormont Parliament another; Sunningdale was a contrivance, as is the Good Friday Agreement in terms of its structural proposals. The contrivance which we are presently trying to work won't last forever.

For the first time in the relationship between North and South, the principle of consent is required for any constitutional change in relation to the North of Ireland. Such is the form of words, but what in effect it means is that a majority of the people of the North of Ireland is required to change the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

That anchor of stability and certainty is guaranteed by the British Government, by the Irish Government, by the people of the Republic of Ireland by referendum and by a majority of people in the North of Ireland by referendum. For those who wish to see the end of British rule, consent means they can use only the power of persuasion to achieve that.

Persuasions by whom? By the organisation which bombed their homes and killed their relatives, who fought the British by killing Irish people who lived here for almost 400 years?

That's not going to be an option for persuasion. Republican violence has bombed itself out of the process for persuasion for Irish unity.

Sixteen years on, we are still fiercely proud and rightly proud of SDLP principles and achievements and our refusal to exclude our Unionist neighbours. Others unfortunately remain proud to this day of a very different past. A claim was made recently by a person who was not, he says, a member of the IRA, that it was never defeated.

Let me for the record make a counter-claim. Yes, maybe the IRA in its various forms was not defeated by any external agency such as the British Army or An Garda Siochana. But it was defeated by its own internal contradictions and demons. In fact, defeat came with the first bullet fired without democratic mandate. It came with the first bomb primed without moral justification.

All the injured, the traumatised, the bereaved; all the innocent dead: Jean McConville, Paul Quinn, young Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball, Garda Jerry McCabe, Omagh.

Young men in graves or jail for 20 years. Communities poisoned and made prisoners by the threat of violence. Bank robbery and money laundered.

This, all of this, is nothing but abject and total defeat.

And today's men of violence - Al Qaeda, Isis and Boko Haram - they too may eventually desist - even apologise. For so long as they continue, they too will hold our horrified attention. In the long-run they, too, will fall away. Because violence interrupts, but does not determine history. That task belongs to the politicians and citizens who pick up the pieces and start over and over again.

To conclude, I am reminded of what we as a party and the communities North and South should do at a time "when language loses meaning, and life becomes commodity, when values are lots at the auctioneer's disposal. Our personal duty is to return to the source, where the heart utters truth in stammering soliloquy, "Where the stuff of hope beckons/Out of the darkness."

'Young men in graves or jail for 20 years, communities poisoned by

violence, bank robbery, money laundering... All of this is nothing but abject and total defeat'

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