Tuesday 18 June 2019

Brendan O'Connor: Mallon: fiercely moral voice who refuses to buy into the lies

As the Gerry Adams legend is printed this weekend, we should pay attention to Seamus Mallon's sober and honest assessment, writes Brendan O'Connor

Authentic: Seamus Mallon demands that we listen to some home truths. Photo: Mark Condren
Authentic: Seamus Mallon demands that we listen to some home truths. Photo: Mark Condren
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

As Sinn Fein conducted one of its trademark spectaculars yesterday - not a bomb exploded, but a baton passed - there was one man who won't have been cheering. One man was presumably sitting in Armagh, carved out of granite, his eyes and his tongue still sharp and piercing at 81, disgusted, as he has been for years.

We know Seamus Mallon wasn't there, because Seamus Mallon can't be in the same room as Gerry Adams. Having spent a lifetime getting on with people and liking people that he didn't agree with, there is something about Adams that Seamus Mallon recoils from, because, "he has his hand in too many awful events. Too many".

Mallon isn't the only one. It is notable how even former comrades of Adams, a few of them who featured in Vincent's Browne's two-part Adams documentary last week, talk about him being a hard man to like, a hard man to trust, a hard man to get to know. One described how Adams was always guarded in how he spoke, always on message. You may argue Adams had to be like that, but you wonder too what is left of a man when he can't be real even with his allies and friends. Where does the humanity hide if all you are is a brittle construct of secrets and lies?

Mallon was mesmerising on the Browne documentary, this fiercely moral voice, who refuses to buy into the myth, to the legend, to the lies. He had another outing in The Irish Times last Friday.

What was extraordinary about it was the straightness of Mallon. We are so used to creative ambiguity around Adams by now - where anyone who questions anything about him or his past or his lies is accused of being merely an enemy, with an agenda, an enemy of peace - that it was a breath of fresh air to hear some honest thoughts from a man who has no agenda any more at 81, except perhaps a kind of a moral rage.

Mallon isn't going to beat Adams now. Mallon can't change what happened. He can't change how the centre ground was destroyed at the altar of Gerry's ascent. But he can demand that we listen to some home truths. He can do that now because he doesn't need to get on with people whom he doesn't agree with any more, doesn't need to suck it up for the sake of the peace process, doesn't need to tip-toe around things. Indeed, Mallon didn't even have that foolish old man's vanity you see in so many former peace processors, from Adams to Clinton. He is just authentic.

As the legend is printed this weekend, about how Gerry Adams fought a necessary war in order to bring peace, Mallon offered an alternative narrative. For him, sitting in Armagh, the outcome of the armed struggle and Sinn Fein's political rise in the North has been a balkanised society with "two political silos, not interested outside their own party positions".

And as Sinn Fein celebrates its progress this weekend, its electoral success in the two states on this island, Seamus Mallon offers another view: "How often did I see the gable walls of houses and barns with graffiti, '1975: the year of victory', '1985: the year of victory'? But what is sometimes ignored is the fact that they lost... The IRA were the biggest failures of the past 40 years and in the process demeaned the term republican and all that it stood for."

As his supporters marvel at Adams's achievements this weekend, how much must it gall Seamus Mallon to think of all the wasted opportunities and lost chances? How much must it gall him to think what his country could be now, instead of a failing state, split down the middle on sectarian lines, ungoverned, and maybe ungovernable, and with the adults who propped it up for so long tiring of bringing along the two sides, of coaxing them along to take responsibility for their country, for those who voted for them. Does Mallon wonder how different it could have been without Gerry Adams? It could torment a man to his grave.

As Mallon dismissed what he called more Sinn Fein lies, like that it started the civil rights movement, he also cast a cold eye over what violence had achieved: "The release of prisoners, amnesties for some on the run… I'm trying to think of something else". And that is the slight paradox of it all. For Mallon and other non-violent nationalists, the only solutions Adams provided were to problems he had caused. He brought peace by stopping his war, and only when he saw that his war was going nowhere and his army was riddled with spies, and only when it suited his political ascent.

Which brings us back to Mallon's point: "Two political silos, only interested in their own positions." The question that begs is: Is Sinn Fein only really interested in Sinn Fein? Can everything else - Northern Ireland, the victims, moderate political opponents, the Republic - all be sacrificed for Sinn Fein's own ends? Is it basically a political party version of a psychopath, where everything and everyone else isn't really real to it, just pawns in its game? But then, aren't all political parties a bit like that really? It's all about survival, and getting elected. For many politicians, the rest is just noise.

As the baton is passed, this may become clearer. There is a school of thought now that Sinn Fein can finally really get the momentum that has eluded it in the Republic, that with Adams and the awkward questions and the "too many awful events" he personifies gone, Sinn Fein can now become acceptable as a normal political party and break into new markets of voters.

But then, without Gerry, what is Sinn Fein? And does Sinn Fein work as a normal political party? What is it for? Mary Lou is a good politician and a great performer. But Gerry Adams was Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara, a poster on the wall, an icon of radical chic. Gerry Adams was a rock star. Mary Lou is just a politician. And Sinn Fein is now just a political party. And you could argue that the worst thing that can happen to Sinn Fein is that it gets treated like just another political party.

And what is it? Is it left-wing? Or is it just a party that wants to get into power, like all the others? Will Sinn Fein join up with a mainstream party like Fianna Fail or Fine Gael to get into power? And if it does, does it do so as a left-wing party?

Or a trendier version of Fianna Fail? And how long will it last once it is subject to the reality of government? People enjoy having Sinn Fein around now, but as a party of opposition. Does it get one go at government and then get eviscerated like the Labour Party?

Is Gerry Adams really the thing holding Sinn Fein back, or is he what is special about it? Will it survive without him? And what of Gerry, you have to wonder. Will he survive without it? Mallon doesn't think he will. He will still be around, Mallon thinks, "He will not be able to survive without the adulation, the massaging of his ego."

Sunday Independent

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