Seamus Mallon: A man of integrity in the face of evil
Memoir: A Shared Home Place
Lilliput Press, €15.99
Appalled by the sectarian murder of six Protestant men during the Irish War of Independence, Seamus Mallon's father always told his son: "Guns never solve problems; they make them."
It's a lesson which the veteran politician carried with him through the worst years of the Troubles half a century later, during which time Mallon went from being a rural schoolmaster, like his father before him, to serving as deputy leader of the SDLP, MP for his local area, and deputy First Minister of the inaugural power-sharing Executive set up after the Belfast Agreement.
Mallon's autobiography has been a long time coming, though he might quibble that this notably slim volume, written with former Irish Times religious affairs correspondent Andy Pollak, is a traditional memoir. There are some lovely tributes to his "absolutely gorgeous" wife, Gertrude, but politics has dominated his life, and his first book, published at the age of 82, naturally reflects those preoccupations.
Even as a young man, with a steady job, who could afford to build himself the bungalow outside the County Armagh village of Markethill where he still lives, he saw plenty of discrimination, as well as "levels of poverty that would be seen as totally unacceptable today". He was soon involved in the civil rights campaign, before, spurred by the late withdrawal of a candidate for the new Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP), he found himself in May 1973 signing up at the last minute to run for the local council, despite having "no desire or inclination to be a politician".
Mallon's convictions were clear from the start. His dream was for a common Irish-Ulster identity which was "neither Catholic nor Protestant, Celtic nor Scottish, Gaelic nor Anglo-Saxon". It's an idealistic and romanticised vision, but it's one that brought out his best instincts, and meant he never succumbed to the temptations of hate or violence.
More people were killed per head of population in Armagh than in any other county, and there were at least three occasions when Mallon believed the country was on the verge of all-out civil war. That violence is all the more shocking for being set against the backdrop of such a peaceful part of the world, over whose beauty Mallon rhapsodises in the opening pages of this book.
The closeness of murderers and victims is what stays with him. "Neighbour killing neighbour has a putrid smell of evil that seeps into an entire community," he writes, and he made a pledge early on that he would visit the homes of every one who died to pay his respects, despite not always being welcome. Mallon admits that he was "not particularly good at articulating my feelings", and suffered from bouts of depression. "What kept me in politics during that period? Sure I was in danger, but so were the people who lived in this village... How do you walk away from that? You hang in there and do your best."
That sense of duty, and a genuine republican spirit of cooperation and tolerance, has been his lifelong hallmark. He has no time for "the blood and bugle stuff that both Sinn Feiners and Orangemen love so much".
Most interest in this book will lie in Mallon's account of the negotiations which led to the Belfast Agreement and his subsequent role in the first post-peace Assembly. It's well known that he and SDLP leader John Hume did not always see eye to eye. Mallon's admiration for Hume is unstinting; he places him alongside great statesmen such as Charles Stuart Parnell and Daniel O'Connell, but they're very different characters.
"He was the vision man; I was the negotiator." Hume worked the international stage, Mallon held things together locally. He says he didn't feel in Hume's shadow, but Hume was a loner, and didn't like criticism, and that didn't make for easy relations. With others in the party, his fear was that the Provos were using Hume to supplant the SDLP as the voice of Irish nationalism.
"I believe, looking back, that our concerns were well founded.... Maybe it was the price that we had to pay for peace, but unfortunately we also legitimised them".
He also has some tough words for Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair for allowing that to happen, and for not holding the democratic line against republicans. "The more difficulties there were, the more they were pampered."
What's notable is the contrasting warmth with which he writes about former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, whom he ranks, alongside Brian Faulkner, the North's last Prime Minister, as "courageous men who tried hard to lead Northern Ireland to a better place in the face of a lot of very nasty stuff from their own people". They had a spiky relationship at times, but "we agreed on two key things: that SF and the DUP were out to get us, and the two governments were not reliable friends". Strong stuff from one so careful with his words.
Despite being an "old-fashioned nationalist... from the Parnellite tradition", he has spent his life among Protestants, and recognises that "perhaps I am the kind of straight-talking Ulsterman whom unionists tend to trust". As he puts it: "I never talked to them in any other than a straight way; I never told them any lies or garnished the truth in any way". For all his honesty, though, he's also a notoriously cautious man.
This book would have benefited from more anecdotes, particularly from those early days of the SDLP, but Mallon, alas, is not a gossip. It's a political virtue, but makes his account of a life in politics a little dry. Some of the chapter titles (The New Ireland Forum And The Anglo-Irish Agreement, or Policing And Justice In A Divided Society) read as if they come from a text book rather than a personal memoir.
Readers raised on a more personal, self-revelatory approach to autobiography may find themselves wishing that he'd let himself go a bit more, but no one who has followed Seamus Mallon's progress would have expected anything different once he finally put pen to paper. It makes for an admirable book, but, regrettably, not an essential one.
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