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Eilis O'Hanlon: Seamus Mallon, an honest Ulsterman

Seamus Mallon's new memoir ranges widely across his 50 years in politics. But it's his abhorrence of violence that comes across most clearly, says Eilis O'Hanlon, while, overleaf, the former Deputy First Minister explains why a simple majority for Irish unification won't be enough

Looking back: former Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon
Looking back: former Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon
Seamus Mallon with John Hume and Brid Rodgers
Seamus Mallon alongside then US Secretary of State Colin Powell and David Trimble
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Seamus Mallon was driving home one night in 1975 when his car radio picked up a police despatch of a shooting in a townland near the Co Armagh village of Moy.

"That's Dinny's place," he thought. Arriving on the scene, his worst fears were confirmed. Lying dead in the driveway was his close friend Denis Mullen, the first Catholic to get a job with the ambulance service in Dungannon, and, like Mallon, active in the SDLP.

Sitting beside Dinny's body was his three-year-old daughter in her nightdress. Mallon says it's an image that "will stay with me for as long as I live on this earth". Mullen had been murdered by loyalists, probably from the notorious Gleenane Gang.

A Shared Home Place, the first book by the 82-year-old former MP, SDLP deputy leader and Deputy First Minister of the inaugural Assembly after the Belfast Agreement, is peppered with similarly dreadful memories of evil. On another occasion, he recalls two young RUC reservists, Snowdon Corkey and Ronnie Irwin, being murdered in an IRA ambush in Markethill, while Mallon and his then-13-year-old daughter Orla were in the village to visit the shops.

Snowdon had rolled under a cattle truck and Mallon knelt by him as "the effluent from the cows was seeping down on top of him" and the young man said: "Seamie, tell them all I love them." For anyone still tempted to glorify political violence, his book is timely reminder that remembering will always be a moral act.

For someone so appalled by violence, it's strange to recall that Seamus Mallon was regarded in the 1970s almost as a secret Provo. That's how suspicions festered in the darkness of the Troubles. He was one of a group of SDLP representatives, alongside Paddy Devlin and Ivan Cooper, who put down a motion at the party's 1976 conference for a British withdrawal, while then-leader Gerry Fitt and future leader John Hume urged caution. Many in the party suspected him of being "the enemy within", but Mallon was always willing to compromise.

At the time of the peace process, he found himself sitting next to UDA member John White, who had brutally stabbed SDLP Senator Paddy Wilson and his Protestant girlfriend Irene Andrews to death in 1973. "I felt if this is what I had to put up with to get an inclusive political settlement, so be it," he writes.

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That steadfastness to do the right thing is manifest in the latter half of his book, where, having run, perhaps too briskly, through his entire career, he devotes the remainder of its pages to his thoughts on where nationalism should go next, now that a majority for Irish unity is being giddily predicted in some quarters.

Controversially, the central plank of Mallon's new approach is that the traditional benchmark of "50% plus one" in a border poll to trigger the end of Northern Ireland's constitutional place in the UK needs to be amended, replaced by a concept of "parallel consent", whereby there would need to be at least 40% support from unionists before any united Ireland happens.

This has sparked indignation among republicans, who see in it a confirmation of their longstanding belief that Mallon was never a "real" nationalist.

The former MP's answer to that, as articulated in this book, as it has been throughout his life, is that his Irishness is about bringing people together and that unity without broad consent would be a doleful and dangerous thing.

As someone who has walked the walk when it comes to the politics of reconciliation, Mallon has earned the right to be heard; but shifting the goalposts this late in the game would undoubtedly mark a breach of the Belfast Agreement.

Democracy is not an exact science, but watering it down out of a misguided, paternalistic belief in saving the people from their own folly carries risks of its own, as the Brexit debacle proves.

Mallon may be better advised to explore further the notion that any future united Ireland should be federal in nature, an alternative which he also admits in this book he's "attracted to" and it's one perfectly in keeping with his lifelong vision of "an Ulster of generous, garrulous, combative, hard-working and poetic people, united for the first time in common love of their home place".

That he's willing to keep interrogating his own political ideals is a testament to how Seamus Mallon has never stopped fretting about the future of the place he loves so much and which he knows his political opponents love too.

Having lived his entire life on the edge of a village that's still 90% Protestant, he sees no contradiction in being both "an old-style nationalist in the Parnellite tradition" and "a straight-talking Ulsterman".

He also openly recognises in this book that his preference for plain-speaking set him at odds from the start with John Hume, whose infamous 'Humespeak' made unionists suspicious because it "hinted at things without actually saying them".

Tempered by his huge respect for Hume, Mallon is restrained in his criticism of the damage which the Derryman's approach to peacemaking has done to centre-ground politics in Northern Ireland, especially once it was adopted by the two governments; but his dismay at what subsequently unfolded is unmistakable.

The "egocentric" Hume believed the SDLP would be the beneficiaries of peace; Mallon always feared that Sinn Fein would supplant them. Mallon was right.

"Looking back," he writes, "it is extraordinary that the two governments did not tell Sinn Fein ...that, now they were in government, alongside other democratically elected parties, they could not have an illegal, secret army with all its weapons intact at their back." The result was that "we... legitimised them".

It culminated at a dinner in Hillsborough, where Mallon confronted Prime Minister Tony Blair as to why the SDLP and UUP were being deliberately edged out of the picture. With shocking glibness, Blair replies: "The problem with you fellows, Seamus, is that you have no guns."

He's equally critical of Dublin for being "deferential" towards republican terrorists, who "seemed to be able to get everything they wanted at every point of he negotiating process". He recalls being "cut dead" by senior named officials in Dublin, who only wanted to talk to the Provos.

In a way, the publication of Mallon's book bolsters Jeffrey Donaldson's observations this week on how the relationship between Dublin and Belfast has suffered in recent years, while that between Dublin and London has flourished.

The British and Irish governments tended to see Northern Ireland through the same eyes, closing ranks against anyone who urged a different approach. That the centre ground was sacrificed to keep the IRA on board clearly still rankles with him. Why wouldn't it?

One man who does earn his warmest praise is former UUP leader David Trimble, with whom he shared power in the early days of the post-Agreement Executive. Trimble could be truculent, but they "agreed on two key things: that Sinn Fein and the DUP were out to get us and the two governments were not reliable friends". At one point, Trimble says: "They're shafting us. We'll soon be redundant." That turned out to be right, too.

There are lighter moments in the book. Mallon remembers working as a barman in Warrenpoint in the 1950s alongside Ken Maginnis. The future UUP MP threw out a group of drunken troublemakers, who came back later and, unable to find Ken, turned on Seamus instead. "I fought back as well as I could but I was no match for those guys and they gave me a kicking." For years after, he reminded Maginnis: "You owe me one."

In another incident, he describes he and his colleagues in the SDLP driving to Belfast on the day the power-sharing Executive fell in 1974 and being pulled over dramatically by the police, who'd seen Hume crammed in the back seat between two burly figures and assumed he was being kidnapped.

The truth, though, is that Seamus Mallon has been out of politics for more than a decade now and has little to say about the current political situation. His contempt for both the DUP and Sinn Fein is blistering and Brexit clearly makes him see red, but there is no mention in these pages of the collapse of Stormont in 2017, or demands for an Irish Language Act. He doesn't even say what he thought of the "Chuckle Brothers" act of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness.

There are many occasions in these pages where he could - and, arguably, should - have said much more. For all that, his essential decency remains incontestable.

When he was elected Member of Parliament for Newry and Armagh in 1986, he was asked at the gate for his thoughts on entering the House of Commons for the first time. He quipped that he was "as good as any man here and better than most".

It's a eulogy which could apply to Seamus Mallon's whole life.

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