Tribute to a statesman
In 2015, the late Seamus Mallon sat down with The Irish Catholic northern correspondent Martin O’Brien for an interview in which he offered rare insights into his life of faith. On the occasion of his death, we reproduce it here
Statesman, patriot, Catholic, primary carer to Gertrude, his dementia-stricken wife, Seamus Mallon is in his eightieth year now and in less than robust health.
And his distinctive voice once familiar through radio and television in households throughout Ireland may not be quite as strong as when it echoed in parliamentary chambers in Dublin, Belfast and London over four decades in all.
But the inaugural Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, and SDLP giant (and deputy to John Hume) when that party was a great political force, has lost none of the passion, intellectual acuity and capacity for straight talk that made him one of the most formidable and respected political figures in these islands in the last quarter of the 20th Century.
You don’t get it as straight as this.
Referring to the place he knows best, his former Newry and Armagh constituency, he says: “In the main areas the [IRA] racketeering would not be going on if it were not sanctioned. I am talking about today. I am talking about a county where there is a huge black economy.”
Asked if he believes if the IRA still holds significant sway in his former constituency almost 18 years after the Good Friday Agreement he replies: “It holds sway in parts of it where the people who live there are literally in fear of their lives.”
Commenting on recent events he says: “25 people have been killed by them [the IRA] since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. That included Paul Quinn, a young man in this area beaten to death by an organised gang and as I said those things wouldn’t have happened, wouldn’t have been allowed to happen, wouldn’t have dared happen in those areas without the blessing of those who rule the IRA.”
His answers may take longer now, he thinks carefully before answering, but his words are no less thoughtful and no less direct and people still pay attention because Seamus Mallon is a person of substance, standing and achievement.
Arguably the greatest success of the Good Friday Agreement has been the new policing dispensation. It is probable that Mr Mallon, as a MP and Deputy First Minister, more than anyone else in the House of Commons, ensured that the necessary amendments were made to the Police Bill in 2000 to thwart then Secretary of State Peter Mandelson’s attempts to water down the Patten Report at the behest of unionists.
Few can argue with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s description of Mr Mallon, at a function in his honour in in Armagh city last February. Deputy Martin said he is “a genuinely historical figure” and added “by any measure Seamus Mallon is a great Irishman”.
Lord Ken Maginnis, the former unionist MP and one of Mr Mallon’s longstanding political opponents during some of the darkest days of the Troubles has said: “We disagree fundamentally on many issues but he’s truthful and principled and straight as a die.”
Seamus Mallon is the only politician in history to have served in Leinster House (he was briefly a senator in the 1980s), in Westminster, where he was MP for Newry and Armagh for nearly 20 years and in Stormont, where he was first elected to the 1973 pre-Sunningdale assembly.
His career reached its pinnacle when he was elected Deputy First Minister – a misleading title, Joint First Minister would be more accurate – after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a historic accord that Mr Mallon describes as “a great step forward” yet was “flawed” because it was part of “a flawed process”.
“Flawed” he argues because it came from a shift in the policy positon of the Irish and British governments and especially the Irish government.
“The Anglo Irish Agreement  and the Joint Declaration  were based by the two governments on the strategy that you built out from the middle. Now that changed to a position where you told the middle to f*** off in reality and brought in the extremes and there is where I believe it was flawed.”
That flaw he believes arises from Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern’s impatience to get into the history books as peacemakers and for that reason they made a fundamental mistake in not insisting that the IRA decommissioned it weapons before Sinn Féin got into government. “I don’t blame [former US President Bill] Clinton. He liked 365 days in the sun and had an American Irish electorate.”
Mr Mallon’s CV from civil rights activist to be effectively joint prime minister of Northern Ireland in a historic power-sharing government led by David Trimble and himself – dubbed the Odd Couple because they were both highly able but prickly individuals – looks and is impressive but it masks many long troubled years of political deadlock and death on the streets and country lanes when Seamus was an unpaid political activist during which Gertrude, a nurse, was the sole earner.
“At one point I was getting £4.78 per week in supplementary benefit. It lasted for three weeks,” Mallon recalls.
He had sacrificed the secure and prestigious post of headmaster of the local St James’ primary school, a post once held by his father, Frank, when he was elected to the 1973 Assembly.
That body paved the way for the Sunningdale Agreement with its mandatory power-sharing executive and strong Council of Ireland which collapsed as a result of the loyalist strike of 1974, British weakness and unrelenting IRA bombs in the centre of Belfast which made Brian Faulkner and Gerry Fitt, the leaders of the Executive, look feeble and irrelevant.
Mr Mallon famously described the Good Friday Agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners”.
We met early in the morning in the study of his bungalow on the outskirts of his native Markethill in mid-Armagh which has been home to Seamus and Gertrude for the past 50 years.
It’s the home where they brought up their daughter Orla and the home that was attacked at least half a dozen times by loyalists during the conflict including a particularly serious petrol bomb attack, one of two such attacks in the fraught summer of 1986 in the wake of the Anglo Irish Agreement which enshrined a say for the Irish government in the running of the North for the first time.
Markethill is well over 90% Protestant and even now, Union flags are flown liberally around the village which was founded by the Acheson/Gosford family who came from Scotland at the time of the Plantation of Ulster around the second decade of the 17th Century when the lands of the native Catholic Irish were confiscated by the English crown.
Mr Mallon says that most of the population of Markethill today are descendants of those who came with the Acheson family (later known as the Gosfords) “as retainers and soldiers and servants for the family. They were there to protect the interests of the British in taking that land.”
It is evident from speaking to Seamus that a lifetime living cheek by jowl with Protestants in an overwhelmingly Protestant area, and serving them as a public representative, has given him an understanding of the unionist psyche and an empathy with the plight of unionists probably unmatched any other nationalist politician in Ireland.
He thinks carefully before answering, but his words are no less direct…”
He was born in the village of Markethill in 1936. His earliest memories are of wartime. “I remember vividly the first time I ever saw a banana sitting in the window of a little shop.” He also recalls “not so vividly we were all evacuated up to a field beside this house with gas masks. “We sat there all night. The stupidity of it never ceased to amaze me. As if the Germans were going to bomb Markethill! We had to live with that type of absurdity.
“The other stark memory of my earlier days were marches, the sound of drums. As a child the music appealed to me but they all seemed to be playing the same tunes. There was the excitement of hundreds of people marching past your door.”
But were they telling you who was king of the castle? “They were making that very clear, yes.”
The most influential figure in the formation of the future Deputy First Minister was his father, Frank. “He taught myself and my sisters. He was a very strong man. He acted almost as a public representative for this area. By that I mean that people from all sections of the community would have come for references, for help with various aspects [of their lives.]
“His influence was great. I remember once this person came to the door who would have been a fairly vocal anti-Catholic. I remember him saying to my father ‘I thought maybe you would turn me away from this door’. My father grew himself up to a height and said ‘nobody will be turned away from this door’.”
It is something that Seamus has never forgotten and he takes pride in his record serving both sections the community and reminds me that he would not have got elected to Westminster for the first time in 1986 without Protestant votes.
A huge big part of that constituency work was spent “in police stations, in army barracks, in jails making representations on behalf of people who were blackguarding me”.
Most of those were republicans who regarded him as a traitor but they didn’t hesitate to ask him to try to secure their release and he aided many young loyalists who had got into trouble with the police.
His paternal grandfather came from Middletown, Co. Armagh and his mother, Jane O’Flaherty from Co. Donegal. Both came from Republican anti-Treaty families and both his parents communicated to him “a sense of deep disillusionment and a sense that one should not get involved in republicanism.”
The source of that disillusionment was “the futility of violence, the futility of facing the future and what you might get with a gun in your hand. And the fact that so many families of their time had been bereaved.”
“The sense of exclusion was very great at that time. Partition had taken place and the North’s Catholic population had been thrown to the wolves. That was the major part of the disillusionment.”
As SDLP Justice spokesperson for many years during the Troubles he was the scourge of the Provos and the loyalist paramilitaries and security forces in equal measure, expressing his revulsion at killings on all sides, highlighting the apparent collusion between elements of the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries when it was not fashionable to do, Fr Denis Faul and Fr Raymond Murray excepted.
Speaking of collusion now Mr Mallon sayss “the level at which it operated was very, very high” and that it had to be sanctioned ultimately by the British Prime Minister.
Mr Mallon stresses that emergency legislation designed to combat the violence actually “debased the law itself and the police and judiciary, both the law and the police. “Two of the essential elements in society, policing and the courts, were blighted.”
The damage was not confined to the North, he says, pointing to findings by the Smithwick Tribunal of collusion between some members of the Garda and the Provisional IRA in the murder of two senior RUC officers in 1989.
He says that some Garda collusion extended beyond the IRA to “a few loyalists also” and all this “diminished the concept of the Garda and sickened decent policemen”.
Several times over an interview that ran for more than two hours Mr Mallon returned to his central theme that the process had been flawed by the failure of the British and Irish governments to insist that IRA weapons were decommissioned before Sinn Féin entered government.
“Some people don’t realise that two and a bit years before Good Friday the Provos had already done their negotiations with London and Dublin and with America. They had been talking to the British, they had been talking to [John] Hume and had been talking to Dublin and they had been talking to America.
“And they had been laying down their basis for ending [their campaign] before the [Good Friday Agreement] negotiations even started.”
This had straddled both the John Major/Albert Reynolds/John Bruton and the new Blair/Ahern administration, he insists.
“The total fundamental weak part of it was that the governments allowed them [Sinn Féin] to set the agenda.”
When it is put to him that Michael McDowell SC, former Justice Minister had recently correctly identified the dilemma facing the two governments and had shown how “an inert IRA” was the “lesser of two evils” and had avoided a dangerous split in the IRA, Mallon is not convinced.
“I don’t question the man’s integrity but I do question his judgement in relation to that. It is a faulty thesis.
“If you take the murders of Jock Davidson and Kevin McGuigan and relate those to the McDowell thesis you will see it is a faulty thesis.”
Mr Mallon was not surprised that an initial SDLP/Sinn Féin engagement in 1988 quickly became the famous and controversial ‘Hume/Adams’ engagement and that Hume was even meeting Adams during the initial engagement.
When I put it to him that it must have been difficult for him to trust his leader “who tended to act alone” he says that was not the case.
“It’s not that I didn’t trust John. I knew the people he was dealing with too well and I knew that they would use John in every way possible which they did.” Pressed on who the “they” is he will not name names but replies “the Shinners, that organisation.”
He says that some Garda collusion extended beyond the IRA to ‘a few loyalists also’”
“They used John to legitimise themselves, in this island and elsewhere and specifically in America where they would never have been in contact with Ted Kennedy had it not been for John and that was part of their strategy to establish that legitimacy. The difficulty with that is that meanwhile back on the ground there was no way in which you could legitimise what they were doing or even to this day legitimise what they were doing.”
So they had got this legitimacy, courtesy of John Hume, that they had neither earned nor deserved? “How could people killing people the way they were doing, racketeering the way they were doing, running a black economy the way they were doing, making hundreds of millions of pounds, how could they deserve legitimacy?” Mr Mallon fires back.
And he insists he is not saying all this with the benefit of hindsight.
“Oh no, it could and should have been done differently. And it all centred on that one point of resolution, get rid of your arms.”
The failure of them to deliver had resulted “in the destruction of David Trimble who had made a courageous decision, took enormous abuse and at the end of the day was thrown out of the boat by the two governments when they called the  election.”
This had happened because Blair and Ahern “couldn’t wait to get the result, and because of that they were giving the Shinners what they wanted. These two men wanted a result, wanted big handshakes and to be known throughout the world as the men of peace who had brought the warring tribes together.”
He believes that had the two governments told Sinn Féin they would not be in government until the IRA got rid of its arms “they would have done it [decommissioned] because they were holding onto the arms as a political weapon”.
The governments’ failure “was bad tactical politics and devalued and tarnished the Agreement and the currency of politics”.
Mr Mallon is most scathing in his description of Tony Blair: “Massively able, tremendous performer within the Commons, and the media. A man who had a moral position on everything and had no compunction about acting immorally.”
That’s very close to saying he was a hypocrite? “Oh God yes, I have no problem with that at all.”
Having been No.2 to John Hume for nearly 20 years it seems Mallon would have welcomed the opportunity to have become leader of the SDLP at the same time Hume designated him Deputy First Minister in 1998. Asked if he regretted not going for the leadership himself when Mr Hume stepped down in 2001 (at the same time he stepped down as Deputy First Minister to care for Gertrude, his wife), he replies: “It could be legitimate to argue that should have happened at the beginning of my term as Deputy First Minister.But, come this later date my wife was ill with dementia and where did my responsibilities lie? I found that a very difficult decision to make but at the end of the day there was only one decision I could make.”
He reveals that after he retired undefeated as MP for Newry and Armagh he was offered a peerage and declined.
Did he not think he should have accepted it rather than let the SDLP’s voice be absent from the House of Lords? His reply is revealing and suggests he would not be uncomfortable with another SDLP person accepting a peerage if they so decided.
“That’s an issue I decided for myself, I will not decide for other people. From my political perspective I want Britain out of here. Wouldn’t it be gross hypocrisy, if holding the political views that I have, an act of gross hypocrisy for me to become a Peer of the Realm that I wanted to disengage from?”
He is loath to comment on the current internal debate in the SDLP around whether the party leader should be based in the Assembly now that present incumbent, Dr Alasdair McDonnell MP has been obliged to abandon “the double mandate” and concentrate on Westminster.
However, he does accept that there are some in the party who are too inclined to look over their shoulders at Sinn Féin. The SDLP has been a much reduced force ever since John Hume brought Sinn Féin in from the cold in the interests of peace so does the party have a future? “Yes, provided it sticks to its integrity of policy position.”
But could it become again the dominant nationalist party? “It can be a party that will, as we have done for the past 30 or 40 years, lay the basis for the political arrangements that others have benefited from.”
I wondered if one possible pathway back for the SDLP might be them presenting themselves as a prospective Opposition with the Ulster Unionists come the next assembly election in May (if the assembly is not dissolved before then).
He is dismissive: “We had 80 odd years sitting on the side-lines – not going back there! No. It [Opposition] of course itself would be a rewriting of the Agreement.”
I never wore my Catholicism on my sleeve…I was a public representative”
So the SDLP can set the agenda again as Hume did when he devised the three sets of relationships at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement?
“Let me reply to your question in this way. Are the people of the North of Ireland happy with the DUP and/or Sinn Féin writing the way in which people here will live politically?”
Mr Mallon has said that SDLP MLAs who are personally opposed to same-sex marriage “should be strong enough to follow the dictates of their conscience”. On the four occasions that the Northern Ireland Assembly has debated the issue a minority of SDLP MLAs opposed to the redefinition of marriage have abstained in the interests of party discipline.
The Party supports same-sex marriage. “It’s a matter of conscience, it’s a matter for each single person. It is not a collective conscience and each person should be strong enough to follow the dictates of their conscience.”
Asked how he would vote on the issue if he was still a MLA Mr Mallon said: “That is a hypothetical situation. I would follow my conscience.”
Pressed as to whether he supported MLAs going against the party’s current rule that no MLA is permitted to vote against same-sex marriage Mr Mallon said: “I am not going to surmise but I think I am saying enough when I say I would follow my conscience.”
Surveying the present crisis at Stormont, I cannot resist the temptation to ask Mr Mallon if Charles Haughey, the man who appointed him to the Senate in 1982 was right when he described Northern Ireland as “a failed political identity”.
The reply is vintage Seamus Mallon. “Let me put it this way,” he says after a long pause. “1921 [Partition] was a contrivance. Sunningdale was a contrivance. The Good Friday Agreement is a contrivance. What will the next contrivance be?”
I asked him if we were possibly moving in the direction of joint sovereignty which some see as the ultimate compromise? “That would be a contrivance too.”
So what is his best guess on what would be the most durable solution? “These are all contrivances because the North of Ireland itself is a contrivance. I think the Good Friday Agreement was a tremendous step forward.”
And then Seamus Mallon returns to the failure of the two Governments to get guns before government.
Seamus Mallon has always considered himself a Catholic who practised his faith while volunteering that he considers that he has not always “worshipped as well or as often as I might.”
He adds: “I have always felt the need for communal worship. It’s that feeling, a feeling of awe that one should have in the presence of the Sacrament, the numinous…that sense of awe.”
Seamus recalls that at home growing up, particularly under the influence of his father, who was also his teacher, “the way that we lived didn’t include anything but the true values of Christianity.”
He has already recalled how his father, the school principal, welcomed everyone who sought help at his door and he served Mass for many years in the oratory near his home.
It is not surprising therefore that Seamus says he is touched by St Paul’s invocation I Cor. 13:13: “Now we have faith, hope and love, these three [virtues] but the greatest of these is love.”
However, for him the “most striking words in the entire New Testament” are from Jesus himself in Matthew chapter 25 when he tells us we will be judged by how we loved our neighbour: “Truly I say to you: whenever you did this to one of these little ones, my brother or sister, you did it to me.”
“That will do me,” Mr Mallon says.
Asked if his Faith sustained him during the most difficult days of his career, including when he received death threats he replies: “It did, yes, yes in hard days.” However Seamus Mallon says: “I never wore my Catholicism on my sleeve. I was a public representative who by an accident of birth was a Catholic. My first duty was to my constituents whoever they may be.”
He makes an interesting use of the words ‘faith’ and ‘believing’ in the same sentence. “There are things that I can’t rationalise and without Faith I could not believe in those things, like a hereafter. Sometimes I try to imagine a hereafter. Is there a hereafter? What is that hereafter? Where do the billions of people who have died all go? It takes Faith down that road.” He smiles. “Because you can’t have a belief without it”.
And what is his sense of God and what type of a Person is God? “I can only answer that in terms of what I hope that he would be, that it would be, that he would be, appreciative of human weakness.”