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Suzanne Breen

Some branded him bitter but Seamus Mallon was never one to bite his tongue

Suzanne Breen


He was always on the right side of history - rest in peace a colossus of Irish politics

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Seamus Mallon

Seamus Mallon

Seamus Mallon (left) David Trimble pictured 1989 .Picture by Tom Burke

Seamus Mallon (left) David Trimble pictured 1989 .Picture by Tom Burke

Seamus Mallon

I grew up watching Seamus Mallon on TV, his thick waves of white hair flying about his face as he railed against injustice.

Those sharp shoulders would jerk up and down as he made his point with gusto. "Seamus has the most expressive shoulders in Irish politics," noted one interviewer.

Even unionists, who saw John Hume as a moderate voice, treated Mallon with suspicion. He was on the green wing of the SDLP.

He became politically active in 1962 when a local unionist councillor refused to rehouse a large Catholic family who were living in a hovel.

"He said that no litter of Catholic pigs would ever get a house in Markethill," Mallon recalled.

"I asked myself what I was prepared to do about that.

"I decided to roll up my sleeves and get stuck in even if it meant antagonising some people. I was not going to be an armchair critic."

In 1973, he resigned as a school principal to throw himself wholeheartedly into the SDLP.

He became a vociferous critic of the security forces. Shoot-to-kill, freemasonry in the RUC, British Army helicopter noise.

He demanded the disbandment of the UDR. Security sources briefed against him. The DUP once demanded that he be arrested as a "terrorist suspect".

Mallon stood demanding answers before the cameras on lonely country roads where IRA men had been killed in controversial circumstances. He shouted questions at inquests.

It was a courageous stance for someone living in staunchly unionist Markethill. Inevitably, he paid a price. There were death threats and hate mail. His home was petrol-bombed.

Weeks after the 1994 IRA and loyalist ceasefires, I sat with him in the study of his neat bungalow crammed with books, paintings and at least a dozen pipes. He expressed hope for the future, and directed his dry humour at the past.

"They came around one night and painted on my wall 'Hang Mallon. F**k the Pope.' I thought that I got the better deal," he quipped.

Seamus Mallon was never a closet Provo. That may have become crystal clear to unionists only in his latter years, but it was always so.

He was steeped in republicanism. Both his mother's and father's families had fought on the anti-Treaty side in the civil war. Yet his father passed on a deep disillusionment with physical force republicanism.

Mallon was vehemently opposed to the use of violence. The most movingly I ever heard him speak was when he recalled the INLA murder in Markethill of two RUC officers, Snowden Corkey and Ronnie Irwin, in 1982.

They had just waved Mallon and his 13-year-old daughter Orla through a security checkpoint in the village moments earlier.

The wounded Snowden fell under a cattle truck. Mallon knelt beside the dying man as "the effluent from the cows was seeping down on top of him . . and the only words I could make out were 'I love them' for his family."

The SDLP politician drove home and "cried and cried at the bloody awfulness of it all".

Mallon famously coined the phrase 'Sunningdale for slow learners' to describe the Good Friday Agreement.

Much to Sinn Fein's ire, he said that the IRA did not win. They were "the biggest failures of the past 40 years and, in the process, demeaned the term republican and all that it stood for".

While others kept their counsel on major peace process players, Mallon's abrasive personality and acerbic style ensured otherwise.

He railed against Tony Blair. He revealed that when questioned as to why the government had edged out the SDLP from negotiations, the then prime minister glibly replied: "The problem with you fellows, Seamus, is that you have no guns."

Mallon thought that some in London and Dublin had been so keen for the fame and adulation that peace-making in Belfast brings that they deliberately signed up to a process with major flaws which did more harm than good in the longer-term.

On the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement - when other former players tried to sound optimistic - he lambasted the DUP and Sinn Fein for the stalemate.

These "two political silos" had "debased and diminished" politics here. He thought the late Martin McGuinness had tried to tell the truth but he couldn't "bear to be in the same room" as Gerry Adams.

Some branded him bitter, but Seamus Mallon was never one to bite his tongue.

In old age, he continued to speak out just as stridently as he did about discrimination and security force misconduct all those years ago.

With his passing, we have lost one of too few uncompromisingly uncomfortable post-peace process voices.

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