A Shared Home Place review: A first-hand view of NI history
Seamus Mallon details growing up in sectarian settings and his political career
John Hume (left) and Seamus Mallon walk on the strand at the Slieve Donard Hotel, in Newcastle during a break from the SDLP annual conferece on November 18th, 2000. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
A Shared Home Place
Seamus Mallon, with Andy Pollak
Seamus Mallon spent too many days in the 1970s and 1980s walking behind coffins, even when he was not welcome at the funerals. What is striking about this memoir is his ability to weave a remarkable eloquence around the unvarnished details of devastation that led to such funerals.
Anyone who has heard and admired his spoken grandiloquence will welcome its transference to print. While this important book has been written with the assistance of veteran journalist Andy Pollak, the narrative voice is unmistakable Mallon and it is compelling and moving.
The book is described as his “personal testament” and underlines his consistency in condemning all violence and collusion in Northern Ireland over the last half century, but it also contains reminders of his doggedness and stubbornness. Former secretary of state for Northern Ireland John Reid once remarked that Mallon was the only politician he had ever met who could make “good morning” sound like a threat.
Maybe that is not surprising, as Mallon had many bad mornings during the Troubles, the tortuous road to a peace process and beyond. Now 82, Mallon has lived all his life among Protestants in Markethill, County Armagh where he had a happy childhood. His father was a Catholic national school principal; a complex, devoutly religious man, but who had little time for clericalism and believed in words rather than guns as weapons.
Had the power sharing survived, Mallon argues, it 'could have saved several thousand lives'
In 1948, Mallon was successful in the 11+ exam which opened the door of further education; he was a committed GAA footballer and trained to be a teacher in Belfast, eventually succeeding his father as school principal while dabbling in drama and finding love with Gertrude (“marvellous in an understated way”).
Mallon could thus have had a relatively comfortable life; what changed much was the revulsion he felt at the response of local Unionist councillor George Woods to the housing request of Mallon’s Catholic friend Harry McGeown who had a family of 12: “No Catholic pig or his litter will get a house in Markethill while I am here”. This led to the mid-Armagh anti-discrimination committee, Mallon’s emergence into local politics and from there to his election as an SDLP MP in 1986, and to ultimately holding office as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland from 1998 to 2001.
Mallon did not crave a career in politics; he felt he had no choice due to the “awful snarl of sectarian hatred on the faces of people I knew and met every day of the week” in response to the Catholic demands for civil rights. As a member of Armagh District Council for 16 years, he witnessed unionist colleagues who were “chisel-faced remnants of the ancient regime; anachronistic old men determined to hang on to their privileged positions”.
The unionist chairman of the council, Charlie Armstrong, was blown to pieces in 1983 having left a council meeting at the same time as Mallon; just one of many incidents that generated a “permanent black pall of fear and deep suspicion . . . neighbour watched neighbour”. Mallon lays bare the slaughter on all sides and even a funeral procession that had to be diverted from a fresh massacre. As a nationalist politician attending unionist victims’ funerals “I could hear my own footsteps”, while the experiences of kneeling beside a dying policeman “put calluses on my soul”.
As one of the SDLP’s leading figures, Mallon felt the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 was a landmark as “a marker had been set down” in relation to power sharing even while the statue of unionist icon Edward Carson at Stormont remained a “symbol of supremacy and exclusion”.
Had the power sharing survived, he argues, it “could have saved several thousand lives” which is debatable, but he credits Brian Faulkner, the last prime minister of Northern Ireland and chief executive of the short-lived power sharing administration, with an intellect and courage rendered useless by the IRA and Ulster Workers Council who were determined to sabotage the experiment.
Catalogue of collusion
By 1976, the SDLP was “depressed, even despairing”. Mallon’s family had to survive on his wife’s earnings as a nurse, and he does not shy away from underlining divisions in the party about power sharing, approaches to Irish unity and joint British and Irish authority for Northern Ireland, not helped by a “Berlin wall of indifference between north and south”.
Mallon and his SDLP colleagues Paddy O’Hanlon and Frank Feely were regarded “as kind of half-Provos” and a mural in his own village read “Hang Mallon and f*ck the Pope” (he notes wryly “I could never figure out why Pope John Paul had to answer for my sins”). John Fee, who had worked with him, was savagely assaulted for speaking out against the IRA.
British prime minister Tony Blair told the SDLP its trouble was 'you have no guns'. Mallon regarded this as a 'seminal moment'
His detestation of the IRA was constant; he also exposes the appalling consequences of collusion between Loyalist paramilitaries and supposed law enforcers, including the savagery of the UDR and the Glenanne Gang in mid-Ulster. The catalogue of collusion is still astonishing to read; the homicidal UVF’s Robin Jackson was untouchable but even some who were convicted were described by Lord Chief Justice for NI, Lord Lowry, as having “done the state some service”.
Despite all the bile spewed at and about him by the IRA and the voluminous hate mail he received, Mallon frequently made the trek to RUC stations to make representations on behalf of arrested, ill-treated republicans.
How ironic it was that it was at Westminster that this Irish nationalist felt safest, “even if I was not safe coming or going there”. In London, he could talk freely with some unionists, partly because all Northern Ireland politicians there were regarded as irritating Paddies and at the bottom of British politicians’ list of priorities.
Mallon does not overly dwell on SDLP leader John Hume, but he tells us enough to underline that Hume was a solo operator. In the run up to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, during which Mallon fell out with both Garret FitzGerald and Charles Haughey, Hume “told me nothing” and when Hume did speak it was the language of “Hume Speak” that hinted at things without actually saying them.
He sees the peace process as a well-deserved triumph for Hume in particular and he ranks him alongside Charles Stewart Parnell and Daniel O’ Connell, while adding, understatedly, “John and I pursued our agreed political objectives in different spheres”. Hume travelled abroad extensively while Mallon remained at the coalface and they disagreed about the “tone” of things.
Hume was “extraordinarily talented, egocentric and very resistant to criticism. He much preferred working on his own”, and it was “perhaps difficult for him to understand the battleground I faced in South Armagh” where Hume Speak would not cut it.
Unionists need to be far more imaginative and politically mature, while nationalists need to be open to something 'more congenial than a unitary state'
But during Hume’s dialogue with Gerry Adams in the late 1980s, Mallon was worried about the SDLP being used and sidelined to advance the republicans’ profile and influence and the high price the party would pay. The response of Hume to Mallon was contemptuously dismissive: “I don’t give two balls of roasted snow for what you think”.
Mallon has a particular bugbear about decommissioning and how it was used by Sinn Féin to dominate the peace process agenda; their bluff, he believes, should have been called as the degree to which it remained centre stage destroyed a more moderate unionism and the SDLP.
British prime minister Tony Blair told the SDLP its trouble was “you have no guns”. Mallon regarded this as a “seminal moment” for the SDLP; it was also cruelly ironic but the desperate priority was to keep the IRA on board and more and more credence was given to the hardliners with Sinn Féin getting almost everything it wanted at every stage of the negotiations.
Mallon is generous to the risk taking David Trimble who as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party “could not even canvass in parts of his own constituency”. As the two sought to lead the new executive in the aftermath of the Belfast Agreement, Trimble threw frequent tantrums but could also be gracious under pressure. It was difficult to watch Gerry Adams strutting out of Downing Street and being indulged by senior officials and civil servants from the Republic while Mallon and Trimble had to deal with the local dilemmas, including the horrendous siege of
Drumcree. A reminder of how small Northern Ireland is was that the Rev William Bingham, the Orange chaplain who was one of the leaders of the Drumcree protest, was the son of Davy Bingham “who was my best friend when we were growing up as neighbours”.
Mallon had a particular concern about policing and was well placed to intervene on this question given that he had been SDLP spokesperson on justice from the mid-1970s to the late-1990s. He was adamant that bad politics and bad policing were interlocked and that repressive emergency legislation had always fermented violence.
In May 2000, he visited Blair unannounced at Chequers and told him to put a break on Peter Mandelson’s attempt to water down proposals for a new policing era, and the Police (NI) Act of 2003 can be seen as one of Mallon’s great achievements.
Mallon, who opted to look after his sick wife rather than seek to replace Hume as SDLP leader in 2001, makes an appeal in the final section of the book for a shared home place in Northern Ireland, noting that both “the DUP and SF have failed even to start becoming parties of reconciliation”. What unionists and nationalists do have in common is that they are “largely detached from the mother countries which they identify so strongly with”.
He has given the prospects of Irish unity much thought; it needs to be defined and shaped carefully and he is adamant that a premature border poll would only foster disunity, leading to a “captured unionist minority inside a state from which they are completely alienated. Does that sound familiar?” He wants to evolve the terms of the Belfast Agreement, calling for the review mechanism in the agreement to be activated to develop the notion of “parallel consent” as a realistic alternative to a bare majority vote; a gradual transition towards unity “until it gains 40 to 50 per cent support in the unionist community”.
This might be a noble aim, but in practical, political and legal terms it is highly problematic; what is undoubtedly true, however, is that any move towards unity will require protracted, structured civil dialogue. Unionists need to be far more imaginative and politically mature, while nationalists need to be open to something “more congenial than a unitary state”; he also suggests the level of debate about NI in the Dáil is “woeful”.
His proposals will be hotly contested, but at least Mallon has given this subject considered cerebration, unlike too many others intent on deepening trenches, and he has earned the right to make his case forcefully, based on his experience, knowledge, pacifism and all those days listening to his own footsteps behind coffins.
Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD and an Irish Times columnist. His most recent book is The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics (Profile Books)