Seamus Mallon. 1936 – 2020

(From his discussions over the years with Peter Makem)

Looking out from his kitchen window on the old Armagh Road in Markethill, Seamus Mallon could see Slieve Gullion in the distance. He often remarked how proud he was to represent such an historic and  celebrated district, the spectacular landscape of the Ring of Gullion, heartland of Irish myth and lore, and close to there the land of the great South Armagh poets. Seven miles to the north stood the Primatial see of Armagh, ecclesiastical capital of Ireland and a few miles further on, Navan Fort with its four thousand year old history, capital of the Uladh founded by Queen Macha. Then the historic town of Newry where he went to secondary school and spent his early years teaching career. But every corner of his constituency was important and that was why immediately after being elected MP in January 1986 he set up a fully staffed office in Newry involving Tom Kelly as Westminster assistant, Nuala Feehan, PA and constituency office, and Billy Feeley who worked part time in the office. Marie Mulgrave was in charge of the Armagh office. He was intent on making a big difference in representing the people, an approach  that eventually built up his personal vote in the constituency to a massive  26,000.
          Mallon’s great strength of approach to politics and to life in general was that he felt neither superior nor inferior to anybody.  Whether in the White House, the Westminster Parliament, Stormont, the Irish Senate, Markethill or South Armagh he was same person. There was no falseness about him.  Since  he died on Friday last  January 25, he has been described as  ‘A force of Nature,’ ‘A Truly Great Irishman,’ ‘An Immense figure in modern Irish history,’ and that  ‘The Good Friday Agreement would have been impossible without him.’ Before the Kerry /Dublin game at Croke Park on Saturday evening, a minute’s silence was called for in his capacity as President of Mullabrack GAA Club and it immediately broke into a long and loud applause from the 42,000 crowd.



So what exactly drove him to become such a dominant personality in Irish life in modern times? Part of the answer was in the discrimination he saw all around him when growing up in Markethill. Another part was in his personality that he naturally reacted to any mode of second class status. Then there was the influence from his Donegal born mother’s side and the lessons she had learned  from the post Treaty years regarding  the futility of conflict in sorting out political problems. An equally strong reason was that he was essentially a man of culture, a teacher, and looked to the great Irish cultural renaissance in the later decades of the nineteenth century as his inspiration. Lastly, he felt a powerful affinity with the Irish patriots such as O Connell and Davis, Parnell that there was a great challenge  to be met in shaping a new age of equality and sense of destiny, and that it had fallen on him to help deliver it.  He felt he was moving in historic footprints.
        So, as many ask, what was the difference in terms of their contribution to modern Irish history between John Hume and Seamus Mallon? Perhaps from the perspective of history it is best expressed as the difference between Plato and Aristotle. Hume was the creator of the original design that formed the unchanging framework for the solution to the great problem of Irish/British politics. It contained core principles of equality,  of a divided people, of opportunity in every field, of cultural aspiration in every manner, of the assent of the people of the island of Ireland. Year after year he pursued his vision until at last it became the official policy of the government of Ireland, of the UK, the United States and Europe and eventually it gathered the local parties around the tables with Dublin and London in a strong committed role.
        This is where Mallon enters the scene. He asks the other great question as to how all this is to be realised on the ground, how is it all to be translated into living, active politics, bridging chasms and voids never done before in this part of the world, involving people of opposing  backgrounds and ambitions. Mallon was no less visionary than Hume regarding the big picture, and for him the focus was the active creation and living out of the Good Friday Agreement

Hard edged

As with Hume, the call of the Civil Rights was his first entry into public affairs. In his early days he was often a man of anger at the discrimination and sectarianism that regulated the land. Anger but never hatred. He harboured an ongoing resentment at the overall British attitude to Ireland that they allowed the one party Unionist rule to blossom into total dictatorship, and largely turned their heads away from all responsibility. In his earlier times he was impatient with progress, called a spade a spade with a fearlessness that on occasions  provoked the ire of local loyalist gangs who tried to burn him out several times.  
           I remember back in August 1990 I was launching a book in Armagh and called  on my way to give him a copy at his Markethill home. He was outside in the garden and as I walked up to the gate found him standing outside. He immediately pointed to the  door and windows.
         “Look at that!” he said.”That’s nice to be coming home to!”
          He had just returned from holidays earlier in the day, and at once I saw that his house had been attacked, obviously by a loyalist gang who had tried to smash through the reinforced door and windows with sledge hammers, leaving great cracks and bulges in the glass. I could sense the hatred all around the house where they had vent their rage.
        As a politician and Civil Rights activist, none trod so dark a road as he moved in the tunnel between Loyalist and IRA reaction to his condemnations. He was attacked from all quarters including officialdom to his demand for total reform of the RUC and Justice. For many years, he must have been the loneliest figure in Irish politics and lived out a life of indomitable courage in the face of such hostility.
         Before his election to Westminster in 1986 he worked without the security of a job to fall back on, having resigned as school principal in Mullabrack, and these were difficult times. But the election of 1986 liberated him into full flow with his full office team. John Fee later took over from Tom Kelly as Westminster Assistant when the latter created  his PR business.   
          His major disappointment in later life was what he felt was the rush by the two governments under Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern to draw the DUP and Sinn Fein into the heart of things at the expense of the other parties.  This was done, he felt, by calling an election in the white heat of things that would create a new and unstable order, that is, that the DUP and Sinn Fein would merely transfer old animosities into a constitutional impasse. He once told me on this issue that the authentic political process was to work from the centre outwards instead of from outward toward the centre. He felt that both London and Dublin took a calculated  risk to get the whole exhausting process over and done with and  get back home to their own normal politics.


Reluctant politician

Seamus Mallon became involved in politics by accident. The actual candidate who had been nominated to stand for the local District Council in Armagh didn’t turn up for the nomination and at the last moment Mallon allowed his own name to go forward. He was essentially an educator, a man of the arts and culture and specifically dedicated to drama. In fact he wrote and produced a play which was performed by local actors  and which won an All Ireland Amateur Drama Festival award for best play. He also played Gaelic football for his native County Armagh.
           From the day he formally entered politics at local level, he was involved in every political development in the North following the collapse of Stormont in 1972. Elected to the first Power Sharing Assembly in 1973, then to the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention in 1975 and in 1982 was elected to the new Northern Ireland Assembly. In 1986 he won the Westminster seat as an MP for Newry & Armagh, and held unto it until  his retirement in 2005. He  became deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland alongside Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble and in 2001 along with John Hume, retired from the leadership of the SDLP. He served also for a time as an Irish Senator. He particularly  prided himself on his role in forging and forcing the new constitutional arrangements regarding the Good Friday agreement as essential to any progress.
           He was very aware that the greatest animosities in politics- as in life- are within the same family so to speak, as between the Official Unionists and the DUP, and on the other had between the SDLP and Sinn Fein. This is because of what might be termed the vindication of history- as to which group took the authentic route toward the resolution.

Gate-crashed Chequers party.

Reform of the RUC was a specific ambition and when he felt during  the Food Friday programme that the government was slackening in full implementation of the reforms, he took drastic action. He flew over to London, took a taxi out to Chequers where Tony Blair was holding a party, pressed the bell on the front door and asked for Blair. The Prime Minister appeared smiling, but Mallon told him that party or no party, he wasn’t leaving until the final piece of the RUC reform  as agreed was guaranteed.
           Back in the early seventies he met every month or so with Cardinal Conway in Ara Ceoli at the latter’s invitation to discuss and compare notes on what was happening in the overall political scene- that even in this early phase of his political career his views and insights were respected. He recalled a great friendship with Cardinal O Fiach and remembers in particular the occasions when the cardinal’s chauffer would arrive at the house to take him down to Armagh for a traditional song and music night in Ara Ceoli, and he invariably end up rendering  his party piece “The Bard of Armagh.”


Notions of nationhood.

As time went on -while keeping a close eye on politics- Seamus became more and more re tuned to his artistic, educational and cultural roots, into  deeper notions of nationhood and Irishness and what these should embody.  The notion of unification, his case for Ireland, rested on much wider grounds than an immediate gallop into a unified state and that such proposed resolutions of the border problem here are always confronted by what might be called eh impasse of “Catch 32” which goes like this:  The more Unionism proclaims a “Never! Never!” intransigence, the more nationalism reacts with a fresh United Ireland assertion. The more Nationalism hoists the tricolour on its march to a United Ireland, the deeper Unionism digs into its “No Surrender” trenches.
He felt that the notion of nationhood, statehood, had changed in the modern world of the large dominant blocks and away from the traditional  notion of nation states. More and more the identity of a people now belonged to what they can give to the world in terms of all round creativity, intellect and art. Economics and infrastructure yes, all the great services yes, but if we do not have that deeper core of things  we have merely modernized ourselves into anonymity looking inwards instead of outwards and lack creative distinctiveness.  Nationhood today involves a much more profound adventure, that Ireland itself as an island needs a totally fresh sense of itself  in this regard in the modern world.
          Peoples, notably those of the North, must look on themselves as a centre of everywhere and a limb of nowhere, the essence of “a Shared Homeplace” and the authentic route to the new Ireland .

              He once told me as follows: ‘The past that I want to celebrate is what gives hope for the future. I think of the great creative ages of Irish history that continue to give the people of this island their deepest status and belonging. Long after the monastic age when we were a world centre of intellect and art, let us never forget the great Irish contribution to world civilization in modern times from North and South  including the immense creative missionary work to the four corners of the earth from all parts of Ireland.  This all represents the Ireland of the Light, the Ireland looking outward,  Ireland as centre. The Gaelic revival at the end of the nineteenth century restored a cultural and artistic identity that had been almost wiped out in penal times. It involved the restoration of the national games, of the language,  traditional music, the  gathering of the myths and legends, the rise of great literature,  the creation of a national theatre.  That is what gives hope for the future. We were giving something to the world that the world did not have without us. More and more in the ever growing uncertainties  and emptiness of the modern age, this is the core of identity, of nationhood, of sense of destiny. As I reflect, I realise that hope is the greatest companion  of all, and out of this I ask myself- did I give everything I had to help create a new age of equality, of constitutional politics, of  a roadway to a new Ireland? I think I did. Have a left a legacy  of hope for the future- I hope I have!”