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Alban Maginness

Even in death, Seamus Mallon issues strong challenges that our politicians need to address

Alban Maginness


His assertion that a simple majority in favour of a united Ireland would not bring peace to this island shows stature of the man, says Alban Maginness

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Seamus Mallon played huge role in peace process

Seamus Mallon played huge role in peace process

PA

Seamus Mallon played huge role in peace process

Seamus Mallon was a mountain of a man, whose political magnitude will only be measured by history.

He had many political personae: a civil rights activist; a member of the Sunningdale power-sharing Assembly; a member of Seanad Eireann; a long time deputy leader of the SDLP; a Member of Parliament for Newry and Armagh, an MLA and finally Deputy First Minister.

There is no doubt as to the outstanding role played by Seamus Mallon as the SDLP's deputy leader for many years. He made a huge impact on Irish politics throughout his 32 years of dedicated public life. Often overshadowed by that other giant of Irish politics John Hume, leader of the SDLP, Mallon was at times not given the credit that he properly deserved for transforming our politics by successfully negotiating the Good Friday Agreement, and not least becoming Deputy First Minister.

As Mark Durkan, former SDLP Deputy First Minister, observed: "John Hume was the architect of the Good Friday Agreement, but Seamus Mallon was its engineer."

What was extraordinary about Seamus's death last Friday was the impressive range of tributes paid to him by very many people across the political spectrum, both at home and abroad. The depth and breadth of their comments are a huge tribute to him.

DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster, in an unusually generous and powerful tribute, said that: "He was instrumental in bringing about peace for our people and that contribution should not go unrecognised."

Former US President Bill Clinton described him as a teacher in heart and practice. He and his wife Hillary described him as a hero of the peace process, never wavering from non-violence.

Pat Hume, wife of John Hume, wrote that: "Seamus was fearless in his condemnation of violence regardless of its source and was a rock of integrity throughout his career which spanned some of our most difficult days."

Alan McBride, of the victims organisation Wave, pointedly asserted that: "Along with John Hume he was an architect of the peace we all enjoy today. How Stormont could do with his intellect today."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MP, on behalf of the party, declared: "Seamus Mallon's life's work carved a pathway beyond our troubled past and gave us all the opportunity to build a shared home on our island."

President Michael D Higgins stated: "Few people have influenced the peace process in Northern Ireland more than Seamus Mallon, a formidable opponent and a tough negotiator in speech and act, but always honest and honourable."

He was all of those things and much more, as illustrated by his varied and rich political life.

For that reason it is not easy to pin him down and make a definitive assessment of his contribution as a statesman. And statesman he was.

He stood up to and courageously opposed the undemocratic and disastrous violence of the Provisional IRA, who saw his democratic Irish nationalism as a threat to their own divisive ethno-nationalism.

He also condemned the abuses and violations of the Army, UDR and RUC.

Without fear he raised the "shoot to kill" policy of the Army and RUC and the plight of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four on the floor of the House of Commons, to the deep anger of the Tory Government.

For that and other issues of injustice that he highlighted, he became a hate figure with unionism and the right wing of the Conservative Party.

It was a difficult and isolated position at Westminster, but he persevered and in doing so won the respect of the House.

Indeed, his skilful use of Parliament is a good example of what can be done by a dedicated MP.

Last year he made his final contribution by publishing his insightful political memoir, A Shared Home Place. Just as he challenged unionism and the British Government in the past, in this book he challenged the current state of nationalist thinking and was strong in contending that a simple majority in favour of a united Ireland was an insufficient basis upon which to build a new Irish state. He believed that a bare majority for unity in a border poll would not achieve an agreed and peaceful Ireland.

Knowing that his life was coming to a close, Seamus poignantly wrote that he found comfort in the Greek proverb: "A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit."

Before he died, Seamus insisted that his funeral service and burial should be in the modest parish church in Mullaghbrack, Markethill, where he was brought up, taught and lived for his whole inspirational life. Truly he had a sense of home and place.

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