Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Seamus Mallon's commitment to finding a shared home space with unionists is still relevant today

Grand old man of Irish politics fears a simple majority for unity would be disastrous, writes Alban Maginness

Seamus Mallon on the campaign trail.
Seamus Mallon on the campaign trail.
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

From time to time we need a prophetic voice to challenge us and stir us out of our comfortable ruts. For that we need a voice of exceptional experience and authority to give us wise counsel and direction. In this regard we have just been challenged in a most provocative and creative way by that grand old man of Irish politics, Seamus Mallon.

He has just published a book, intriguingly entitled A Shared Home Place, that will give plenty of food for thought to all in politics and, in particular, nationalist politicians who invariably call upon unionists to think innovatively about the future. Seamus Mallon does not hold back and is challenging in his thoughts.

There is no doubt as to the outstanding role played by Seamus Mallon, the SDLP's deputy leader for many years. He made a huge impact on Irish politics throughout his 30 years of dedicated public life.

Often overshadowed by SDLP leader John Hume, Mallon has not been given the credit that he properly deserves for transforming our politics by successfully negotiating the Good Friday Agreement and not least becoming Deputy First Minister.

Mallon is a big man, but his real bigness is in his charisma, his presence and capacity to captivate an audience and to give inspirational leadership.

Despite the continuous threat to his own life, Mallon courageously spoke out over two decades against the disastrous violence of the Provisional IRA, who saw his democratic Irish nationalism as a threat to their own ethno-nationalism that blinded them to the interests of their unionist neighbours.

They had a bizarre view that you could bomb your neighbours into a united Ireland and then expect them to live in peace with you happily ever after. He was, rightly, wary of engaging with them under the guise of Sinn Fein, but tolerated that process, which eventually succeeded in bringing about an end to their destructive campaign of violence.

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He recognised that that process could cause damage to the SDLP, but nonetheless tolerated it for the greater good of achieving peace in our society. He was, however, right in predicting that the SDLP would suffer politically, as it did and still does.

He was also a fierce and frequent critic of the abuses and serious misconduct of the Army, the RUC and the UDR. He rightly raised their abuse of power, which undermined the rule of law. He was bitterly criticised by unionist and British politicians for daring to do so.

Despite that he courageously raised the issue of the mistreatment of prisoners and the sinister "shoot-to-kill" policy on the floor at Westminster.

After his sensational by-election win in 1986 to the House of Commons, he was regarded by unionists as a hate figure. Those who think Gerry Adams got a bad press should read the vicious attacks on Mallon at the time. But he doggedly continued and exposed the dirty war being waged by the Army, RUC Special Branch and the intelligence services.

He was an outstanding parliamentarian and used the back benches at Westminster to full advantage. It was a lonely and difficult position, with only John Hume, Eddie McGrady and Joe Hendron as colleagues, but he persisted and eventually won the respect of all parties in the House of Commons.

Indeed, his skilful use of Parliament is a good example of what can be done by a small number of dedicated MPs and is an object lesson to some current MPs, who waste those opportunities by fruitlessly abstaining from Westminster today. Just as he challenged the British Government in the past, today Seamus Mallon challenges the current state of nationalist thinking and is robust in contending that a simple majority in favour of a united Ireland is an insufficient basis upon which to build a new Irish state.

He believes that a bare majority for unity in a border poll will not achieve an agreed and peaceful Ireland. He is concerned that such a vote would lead to more division, instability and probable violence.

He calls for a slower, more cautious approach to having a border poll and argues that we could repeat the chaos of the Brexit referendum. A premature border poll may deliver a narrow and completely unworkable majority for unity.

Therefore, nationalists need to show generosity to unionists. Firstly, by not pushing for unity until there is a wider and deeper acceptance of it among the unionist community and, secondly, by showing a willingness to put forward some arrangement more congenial to unionists that is some way short of a unitary state, possibly some form of confederation.

Therefore, the immediate task for nationalists is to aim for reconciliation within Northern Ireland, working with unionists to build what Seamus has called "our shared home place".

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