Wednesday 19 June 2019

Seamus Mallon: sombre, compassionate and prickly

Memoir: A Shared Home Place

By Seamus Mallon with Andy Pollak

The Lilliput Press, paperback, 272 pages, €20

Distinguished career: Seamus Mallon is now 82
Distinguished career: Seamus Mallon is now 82
A Shared Home Place by Seamus Mallon

This deeply humane memoir from one of the most prominent Northern politicians reflects on the Troubles and beyond, writes Andrew Lynch.

Seamus Mallon must have been a brilliant school principal. That was the Armagh man's job in 1973, when he reluctantly agreed to replace an SDLP local election candidate who had pulled out at the last minute.

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It turned out to be a life-changing decision, launching him on a career that included 22 years as deputy party leader under John Hume and three as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland alongside David Trimble.

Throughout all that time, Mallon retained the air of a strict but patient teacher urging his unruly students to behave themselves. For the senior Irish diplomat Sean O hUiginn, he "personified the decent, put upon strand of Northern nationalism in a wonderfully attractive way".

The former Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid, meanwhile, described him as "the only politician I have ever met who could make 'Good morning' sound like a threat".

Now Mallon has written a memoir that perfectly reflects his personality: sombre, compassionate, often prickly but full of robust common sense. As its title suggests, however, A Shared Home Place focuses on Northern Ireland almost as much as himself.

You get the impression that co-writer Andy Pollak had some difficulty in getting him to open up about his personal experiences, but none at all when it came to discussing his political philosophy and ideas for the future.

The early chapters explain why Mallon was always so strongly opposed to tribalism. Growing up as a Catholic in the largely Protestant village of Markethill, he mixed freely with both communities and became "the sort of straight-talking Ulsterman whom unionists tend to trust".

He pays a warm tribute to his father (also a school principal), who had once supported the Old IRA but told young Seamus: "The only weapons which should ever be used in this country are words. Guns never solve problems, they make them. Always remember that, son."

Even so, Mallon's pluralism was not always recognised by others. He grimly recounts how his seven-year-old daughter Orla came home in floods of tears one day because she had seen a schoolyard mural that read. "Hang Mallon and F**k the Pope".

He was sometimes made unwelcome at Protestant funerals and once woke up to find that his house had been set on fire by "incompetent arsonists".

When it comes to reliving the Troubles themselves, Mallon denounces all violence with the fervour of an Old Testament prophet. "Neighbour killing neighbour," he laments, "has a putrid smell of evil that seeps into an entire community."

After one shooting in Markethill he knelt beside a mortally wounded RUC man, who begged him, "Seamie, tell them all I love them" - an experience that "put calluses on my soul".

Mallon understandably went through periods of depression but pursued a peace settlement like the way he played Gaelic football: "Stay on the field until the last man dropped. I just kept going, hopeful that the human spirit of ordinary good people would triumph."

Although this is not the sort of political memoir written mainly to settle old scores, Mallon's pen-portraits of his colleagues are typically sharp.

He liked Charlie Haughey (who appointed him to the Seanad in 1982) but flatly disagreed with him about the Anglo-Irish Agreement, fell out with Garret FitzGerald over the bugging of a republican family and befriended the arch-unionist MP Enoch Powell after discovering their shared love of war poetry.

He worked with David Trimble as best he could, but caustically notes that the former First Minister "developed storming out of meetings into an art form".

As for John Hume, Mallon is keen to downplay the widespread perception that they had a difficult personal relationship. While acknowledging that his old boss was a visionary leader in the mould of Daniel O'Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell, however, he does accuse him of being overly secretive and occasionally downright rude.

When the author once worried aloud that giving Sinn Féin too many concessions might hurt the SDLP, Hume simply replied, "I don't give two balls of roasted snow what you think."

This goes to the heart of Mallon's fundamental reservation about the peace process. Although he recounts his role in the Good Friday Agreement talks with obvious pride, he feels that the Irish and British governments then dithered far too long over asking the paramilitaries to surrender their weapons.

He recalls asking then British prime minister Tony Blair at a dinner in Hillsborough why the SDLP were being marginalised and being told, "The trouble with you fellows, Seamus, is that you have no guns."

Today, Mallon still passionately believes in the concept of Irish unity but does not expect to see it in his own lifetime.

He is scathing about nationalists who think winning a border poll by one vote would be enough, claiming they are stuck in an old "this is our place, that lot can feck off" mentality.

Instead, he devotes considerable space to explaining his preferred mechanism of "parallel consent", which would effectively mean that a united Ireland can only happen if at least 40pc of both communities agree.

"As Irish republicans, we need to help our unionist fellow Irish people to be part of this beautiful island we call home," he concludes. "That may not have much of the blood and bugle stuff that Sinn Féiners and Orangemen love so much, but it's what the vast majority of ordinary people want."

Now aged 82, Mallon describes himself as a religious man who "needs the concept of a God". When the Day of Judgement arrives, he hopes his maker will declare: "Could have done better. Could have done things differently. But tried his best."

This candid, intelligent and deeply humane book shows that he deserves a much more generous verdict.

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