My first face-to-face meeting with the former Northern Ireland deputy first minister Seamus Mallon was on December 19th, 1975, when members of the so-called Glenanne gang shot up and bombed our local bar and petrol pumps at Silverbridge in south Armagh, a short distance from the Border, about six miles from Dundalk.
The loyalist gang killed three people, including 14-year-old Michael Donnelly, son of Marie and Gerry Donnelly, owners of the business and very good friends of my late parents.
A relatively young reporter, I was dispatched by my producer in BBC Radio Ulster to interview Mallon about the atrocities. He claimed in his recent autobiography that he was the first person I ever interviewed. I am not disputing that. He had been synonymous in our family home with the GAA and civil rights long before my meeting him for the first time that night in 1975.
My professional encounters with him were not always straightforward in the ensuing years and in this article I will go over some of those experiences, which fortunately did not damage our long-term friendship.
You are telling me I am killing the party. There are people being killed out there in that street every day
I last had a very protracted lunch with the former Newry Armagh MP in October 2018. It was a delightful, reflective engagement. He confessed to me: "It's a lonely stage of life." I witnessed this personally when his wife Gertrude died in 2016.
When I visited the Mallon wake house I observed Séamus sitting in the armchair in the corner of the drawing room with his little pet dog Jessica on his knee. I thought to myself that the dog would probably be the only company Mallon would have when everyone left after the funeral and Órla, the Mallons’ only child, returned to her family home in Cookstown.
My most recent conversation with Mallon was on the phone around midday on January 8th when I called him to ask how he was. I had learned he had fallen very seriously ill before Christmas. He was scarcely audible and came close to breaking down in our conversation.
What a contrast to that wonderful oratorical voice that reverberated for many years across the floor of the House of Commons at Westminster and of the chamber at Stormont. When Mallon stood up, colleagues and political rivals listened. His handsome frame was matched by his rich articulation.
Excesses of the IRA One of
Mallon’s lowest points in politics was coping with the Hume/Adams ongoing discussions in 1994 in which he did not believe or trust. I will come to that shortly.
Born and reared in a mainly Protestant area, Markethill, south Armagh, Mallon was exposed to the excesses of the IRA, particularly the 1976 IRA Kingsmill killings, the Glenanne gang killings of the three Reavey brothers, the killings of three members of the O'Dowd family, as well as the British army shooting dead in 1976 of schoolgirl Majella O'Hare in nearby village Ballymoyer.
Mallon bore the heat of the day, finding himself regularly having to challenge the behaviour of the RUC, the British army and the UDR while coping with habitual anxieties over alleged collusion between loyalists and the security services. He had absolutely no time for the role played by the IRA. He avowedly opposed violence from all quarters. It was Mallon’s opposition to the IRA’s campaign of violence, death and hurt visited upon the Protestant community in south Armagh which made the Hume/Adams talks intolerable for him.
This clash in approach to bringing the IRA campaign of violence to a close came to a head on August 18th, 1994. The SDLP leader John Hume was ambushed at a meeting in the party's headquarters on the Lisburn Road 13 days before the IRA ceasefire on August 31st.
Mallon was one of the most vocal that night in challenging his leader on the validity of his continuing talks with Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams while the violence was still happening. Hume ended up that night isolated with as few as three people in the room supporting his talks with Adams, among those Joe Byrne MLA for West Tyrone and Mark Durkan, a future SDLP leader and MP.
Mallon was a very gifted man, a fine actor and producer
When a member of the gathering told the SDLP leader that he was killing the party, Hume lifted his head and responded: “You are telling me I am killing the party. There are people being killed out there in that street every day. If I am wrong and there is not an end to the violence I will quit as party leader but I will not apologise for trying to end the violence.”
When that notorious meeting ended in chaos, Mallon and his supporters reconvened at a venue not far from the party’s headquarters. An individual at the gathering that night told me Mallon cried and spoke of “the end of the SDLP”.
Thirteen days later the IRA announced a ceasefire and in the wake of the Belfast Agreement Hume appointed his long- term colleague Mallon deputy first minister. Even that appointment was unconventional and was as much a surprise to Mallon as to everybody else in the party.
Members of the party faithful had convened a quickly-arranged celebratory get-together to salute the SDLP's Belfast Agreement negotiating team the morning after in the Wellington Park Hotel. Mallon told me: "As we went into the room, John tugged on my coat-tail and said: 'Hi boy, you better take this deputy first minister's post. I am not well and I have a lot to do.'" No pomp, no ceremony.
I stated above my relationship with Mallon didn’t always run smoothly despite the fact our alma mater was Abbey CBS Newry and we both came from south Armagh.
Deep suspicion At the heart of that clash was
Mallon’s deep suspicion that Hume was briefing me too much and not to his liking, given the accuracy of the insights I had into the Hume/Adams talks and so on.
An SDLP insider informed me Mallon told a party meeting: "Eamonn Mallie knows more about what is going on in this party than we do." Mallon sent me to Coventry for a long time and during the stand-off at Drumcree between the Orange Order and the police I was tipped off that he was corralled in Markethill, cut off with trees blocking roads into and out of the village. I called the Newry Armagh representative to ask him was my information correct and he confirmed this.
I then asked him if he’d do an interview about his dilemma. He agreed. I turned on my recorder and put my first question to which Mallon replied: “Every highway and blyway is blocked in the village.” I stopped the recording to remind him he had said “blyway” instead of byway, to which he replied: “I don’t need you, you b*****d you, to teach me grammar.” He slammed down the phone. I called Mallon back and advised him I didn’t want him to “sound silly”. “Go on,” he urged, “turn on your machine.” We did the interview. I still have that recording.
The real reason why Mallon ceased to be deputy first minister in 2001 was because he took a decision to quit his high-profile job to become a full-time carer for Gertrude
In another exchange late at night I was interviewing Mallon in a corridor high up in the Europa Hotel. I started with a fairly soft question, following up with what he considered a nasty question, to which he replied: "What sort of a f***ing question is that?"
Mallon was a very gifted man, a fine actor and producer. He loved to punt. He and the PUP’s Hughie Smyth acted as bookies during the Belfast Agreement negotiations.
I recall a historic night during an economics conference in New York when Ulster Unionist MP Roy Beggs, Dr Joe Hendron MP and Mallon raised the rafters well into the wee hours of the morning. Sadly we will not enjoy the likes of that again.
Such was the precarious nature of politics in Northern Ireland that for years there were times when politicians such as Mallon had little regular income to speak of. I recall one evening during the 1991-1992 Brooke/Mayhew talks this reality struck home in Mallon's case. His colleague and loyal friend Frank Feely was joined by a number of American politicians at Parliament Buildings where efforts involving the British and Irish governments were afoot to get an Assembly off the ground.
Mallon informed me the Americans wanted to go to the Stormont Hotel for dinner but confessed to me he had no money. I bailed him out. I had a few pounds in my pocket and I gave them to him. Six years later when he got back on his feet he spotted me in the Wellington Park Hotel and he called me over, declaring: "I owe you a few pounds." He handed £50 which I didn't want to accept. He added: "Every time I saw you over the years I said to myself: 'I owe that man a bit of money.' " Plain decency.
Unknown to many, the real reason why Mallon ceased to be deputy first minister in 2001 was because he took a decision to quit his high-profile job to become a full-time carer for Gertrude, who had been unwell for a long time.
Earlier I spoke of the bond between himself and Jessica, his dog. When Mallon’s health deteriorated he was confined to bed and he was very happy having his beloved Jessica by his side on the bed.
On Friday, January 17th, as the curtains of night fell, Órla advised her dad that she was taking the dog out for the night to her kennel. When she lifted Jessica she discovered she was dead.
Mallon, when informed of this by Órla, said: “God works in mysterious ways.”
Perhaps history will ultimately thank Mallon for one seminal contribution to life in Northern Ireland.
The late Maurice Hayes underscored this in interview with me before his death. He said: "Without Séamus Mallon at Westminster the reform of policing in Northern Ireland could not have happened."