Sunday 18 August 2019

Mairia Cahill: 'I did my best and got some things right and some things wrong'

Seamus Mallon reflects on the violence and politics of the past, but still has ideas and a vision for the future

RESPECT: Seamus Mallon with interviewer Mairia Cahill. Photo: David Conachy
RESPECT: Seamus Mallon with interviewer Mairia Cahill. Photo: David Conachy

Mairia Cahill

At the height of negotiations for the Belfast Agreement, the late Mo Mowlam, apparently sleepwalking, shuffled barefoot into a room where Seamus Mallon was meeting Bertie Ahern, sat down beside the former and fell asleep on his shoulder. Mallon let her rest and carried on talking. A few minutes later, as he describes in his new book A Shared Home Place, she "lifted her head and... exclaimed, 'F***ing brill, Seamus', and went back to sleep again".

It's one of many fascinating anecdotes contained in his first memoir, which Mallon, shunning computers, wrote by hand. The process took a year with the help of Andy Pollak, who edited it to its finished form. "He's very good as a journalist and I was asking him his opinion on every part of it," Mallon explains. "He was also very useful to me in the sense that he's living in Dublin and he knows media and everybody in it."

Writing was laborious but Mallon says: "It's the only way I can do it. If I'm using a tape recorder it's false. Some of the stuff I read, if I could say it gently, is cogged out of other books and put together with bits from video stuff, so I firmly believe that I was going to do it my way and that was it."

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What followed is a thoughtful book, replete with memories of his life and career, well-researched historical references to the area he grew up in, astute political analysis and his own suggestions for the future of his country.

We talk over cups of tea and buns, and Mallon relaxes into conversation. A photograph of him meeting Pope John Paul II sits on the table beside him, while pictures of his granddaughter Orla take pride of place on the mantel. At 82, his voice is softer these days, less urgent than it seemed through the medium of television at the height of his career, but at that time it was a necessity to try to stop his fellow humans slaughtering each other.

Death, or what Mallon describes in the book as the "stench of evil", was everywhere and he made a pact with himself that he would go to the funeral of everyone who had been killed in his constituency, no matter what their background.

Seamus Mallon with wife Gertrude and daughter Orla
Seamus Mallon with wife Gertrude and daughter Orla

It wasn't without its difficulties. "It has a terrible effect on you," he says, voice faltering. He was denounced from the platform of the funeral of IRA man Fergal Caraher, whose death he describes as a "shoot to kill" by the British army, where the speaker accused him of being "a UDR lover, and a half-Brit". "I was standing there and I said to myself, hold your ground stay, and that was hard."

On another occasion he was beside two policemen friends when they were murdered and describes in horrific detail in the book kneeling beside one of them as he lay dying under a cattle truck, effluent dripping down on both of them.

Asked how he coped with experiences like that, he is honest: "You cope because you have to cope… it batters you emotionally and it makes you decide what your priorities are politically and every other way." The former English teacher explains further: "To go for a bit of poetry, Wilfred Owen's Dulce et Decorum est… That's it in words, I was seeing it in reality."

It's an apt descriptor: "If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood... Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,/ My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/ To children ardent for some desperate glory/ The old lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori."

Seamus Mallon with SDLP leader John Hume. Photo: Peter Jordan
Seamus Mallon with SDLP leader John Hume. Photo: Peter Jordan

It's a message Mallon has carried with authority - equally critical of all those who inflicted violence during decades of conflict. His no-nonsense approach combined with human empathy won him respect as a formidable political opponent, while drawing the ire of paramilitaries on all sides.

A nationalist politician who openly favoured Irish unity, living in a remote part of the predominantly unionist village of Markethill left him vulnerable to attack. "The reason we survived was," Mallon says, "there were Protestant people in the village and the area, and on a number of occasions people came to me and said, 'Go off for the weekend'. So my survival in reality was thanks to them. There was the time they (loyalists) tried to burn the house but they made a balls of it, and another night they broke windows, so we knew it [danger] was there."

His has been a remarkable political career. Involved in the civil rights movement, he entered the political field at the last minute when another candidate pulled out, was elected as an SDLP councillor in 1973, then the new Northern Ireland Assembly post-Sunningdale, subsequently became a Westminster MP, a Senator in Seanad Eireann, and Deputy First Minister for the post-98 Assembly.

Throughout his 32 years as a politician, he regards his work on the Patten legislation on policing as one of his greatest achievements, though was frustrated by British government use of the guillotine at report stage.

"Mandelson had done the dirt on Blair... I got so angry that the following Sunday I went uninvited to Chequers. I said, 'Look Tony, we will not and cannot make any political agreement unless we have got policing and justice right'. Two or three years later they had to do it again at a cost of x number of millions and we got a happy end to it."

John Hume is described as "the visionary" in the book, while Mallon refers to himself as "the negotiator". "From the earliest civil rights days, John set down markers that our party followed, governments followed and that were at the heart of peace," he explains, mindful not to diminish Hume's role when I inquired whether Hume's travelling to the US and EU made Mallon a de facto leader of his party at home. "I just had to get on with it, in a way. I wouldn't overstate it," he says matter-of-factly.

His description of elevation to Deputy First Minister is typically understated: "John took me by the sleeve and says 'hey, you're going to have to do this'. and I said 'OK', and that was the conversation."

He became a symbol of hope for reconciliation when, along with David Trimble as First Minister, they worked on running the post-agreement Assembly. It wasn't without its difficulties. "We did quite a substantial amount. What I couldn't get David Trimble to do was to forget about the normal type of press statements but to tackle the whole issue of relationships, go to places that we should go but where others wouldn't go. He was so cautious, couldn't get him to do that, and the decommissioning eventually got him - got the both of us maybe."

There is a very funny story in the book where Mallon resorts to locking the door on Trimble, who, according to him, had a reputation for storming out. "I got so used to him flouncing out after a tirade and the face flying off him. It was on what days the flags would be flown up at Stormont and one of those things could go on forever and he came in and I locked the door. 'Why are you doing that?' he asks. 'Ah,' I says, 'I just want to be safe, people come in there you know, we could be interrupted'. I found with him over time he could be very entertaining, but he didn't know he was an entertainer - he's an expert in everything."

In the last three chapters of his book, Mallon puts forward detailed arguments for unity of Ireland's people, discusses whether the country is ready for unification and suggests a mechanism of what he terms "parallel consent", or "sufficient plurality" of both communities on unity, and at least 40pc of agreement among unionists on a Border poll.

"The reason I'm making those suggestions is to get there and to get there in a peaceful way. Now my belief firmly is to hold a Border poll. A small majority is not going to work, because Ireland North and South isn't ready for it. I've no doubt there would be loyalist reactions, no doubt at all about that. There would be very substantial loyalist violence before it and afterwards. What do you do then? Sooner or later the unionists' position in terms of a Border poll has got to be measured. The reason it's got to be measured is that 50pc-plus doesn't give you either the stability of knowing if unionism is responding. Might we not be safer having the Border poll and have the donkey work done before rather than after it?"

Pushed on the fact that his proposal may win favour with unionists, but draw ire from his own tribe, Mallon concedes. "Yeah, FW de Klerk, that was his experience in South Africa, that's right, I accept that. I would certainly like to see a lot of discussion about the hard, difficult parts of this. If a Border poll was carried and we only had 20pc unionists for, you can't do anything for another seven years and there's a sourness about it all... and then all of a sudden this thing's going to come up in front of us - are we going to do to the unionists what they did to us in 1920?

And of republicans? "We're now coming to this point, the point where there are demographic changes because the whole raison d'etre of nationalism and republicanism is to obtain unity by consent. Consent and agreement only come by discussion and analysis, now who is going to do that persuasion? Are the Provos going to do that?"

Asked why he thinks republicans are not best placed to persuade on the unity argument he states bluntly: "Dead bodies."

He is also scathing about Brexit. "When Cameron made the awful decision to have the referendum, the government sat back. They did nothing, Now, we could well make that same mistake on the Border poll if we were to go into that without any planning, without the two parts of Ireland being ready for it, then we could have the type of catastrophic result. The other factor in Brexit which I think is very important for us, Brexit has turned out to be about identity. You have those who are seeing Britain still as an empire with power and influence worldwide, a nonsense which of course is being laid bare.

"In Ireland the sense of identity is the root of the problem we are talking about in terms of negotiations, unionists, nationalists, a sense of identity that we have to be very aware of, and that is one of the factors I tried to inform myself in writing this book, that's why I called it A Shared Home Place, so the two identities would live hopefully together without making the same mistakes they have in the past.

At the end of the interview, mindful of Mallon's contribution to political history, I ask how he wants to be remembered. He sits back, exhales, and his answer is typically pragmatic. "That would be self-indulgence. I did my best and I got some things right and some things wrong and that's a mirror image of life, isn't it?" he says.

'A Shared Home Place' by Seamus Mallon with Andy Pollak, published by Lilliput is out now.

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