IN times past members of the SDLP have usually referred to the Northern section of this Island as ``the six counties'', ``the North'', or ``the North of Ireland''.IN times past members of the SDLP have usually referred to the Northern section of this Island as ``the six counties'', ``the North'', or ``the North of Ireland''.
But in using the official title ``Northern Ireland'' yesterday in the Assembly, Seamus Mallon may not have been using the term for the first time, he was however making a significant symbolic gesture of conciliation towards his unionist fellow assembly members.
It was a sign of the new relationship between the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists and although a small step, it augured well for the building of a good relationship between Mr Mallon as deputy first Minister and Mr Trimble as First Minister.
The men come from different backgrounds, Mr Trimble a former lecturer in constitutional law, Mr Mallon a former headmaster. While Mr Trimble is a somewhat shy person in the unchartered waters of baby kissing and official openings, Mr Mallon, a more social animal, is regarded by his colleagues as a canny political strategist and an accomplished poker player.
Friends say it was this ability to weigh up the odds and to adopt a pragmatic approach to his political assessments during the pre-agreement talks, which enabled him to work with David Trimble in finding a common ground in the Good Friday agreement.
It was this common sense approach to reaching a compromise with unionists which appealed to both Mr Trimble and down to earth unionists such as Ken Magennis.
It was also this commonsensical approach which enabled him to put aside his political differences with Mr Trimble and make a joint visit to the relatives of two men, one Catholic, the other Protestant, shot dead by the LVF in Poyntzpass on March 3.
The view of both unionists and nationalists at the Assembly yesterday was that the two men should be able to work well together. Both have an enormous capacity for hard work, and provided the Assembly is allowed to progress beyond its uneasy birth, Mr Trimble's ability to analyse and come to grips with complex constitutional problems and Mr Mallon's ability to present a difficult concept in simple direct language, could be the best possible partnership on offer when it comes to the filling the Assembly's two prime posts.
Mr Mallon's frequent and strong condemnation of the IRA has also won him grudging respect among unionists who previously would have regarded him as a politician cut in the green cloth of old fashioned nationalism.
Still it would be naive not to expect differences between the two men. Mr Mallon would like to see a United Ireland. Mr Trimble very dearly would not. But as Mr Mallon said yesterday, if he has problems in the days ahead in his dealings with Mr Trimble he will say them to his face. As he told the Assembly yesterday with his typical wry humour, he was quite sure that Mr Trimble's back was sore enough. He did not say the knives had been out but everyone knew what he meant.
Certainly there are unionists who already have cause enough to thank the 62-year-old SDLP MP for Newry and Armagh. During a meeting of the inter-party talks at Lancaster house earlier this year, Mr Mallon passed on to his political opponents a hot tip for a forthcoming race with very healthy odds. Both Ulster Unionists and PUP delegates were among those who more than covered their bets.