Seamus Mallon: An honest, straight-talking Ulsterman

Behind his sometimes dour public persona, Mallon had a mischievous sense of fun

Seamus Mallon: His political opponents came to appreciate him as an honest, stubborn, conscientious Ulsterman, who dealt in straight talking. Photograph:   Paula Beats/ Reuters

Seamus Mallon: His political opponents came to appreciate him as an honest, stubborn, conscientious Ulsterman, who dealt in straight talking. Photograph: Paula Beats/ Reuters

 

On the bitterly cold evening of February 20th, 1986, Seamus Mallon made his maiden speech in the House of Commons as newly-elected MP for Newry and Armagh. In the course of it he cited Spinoza: “Peace is not an absence of war. It is . . . a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.”

Behind him he heard Enoch Powell, Unionist MP for South Down, muttering and banging the desk. “What’s wrong with you?” asked the Armagh man, after he sat down.

“You quoted Spinoza wrongly,” hissed Powell.

“I did not,” retorted Mallon.

The two adjourned to the Commons library where the raw young Christian Brothers-educated lad from Newry proved to the great classical scholar from Cambridge that his citation from the Dutch philosopher was correct and that Powell was wrong.

Thus began one of many unlikely relationships, based on respect, which Mallon was to enjoy during his 19 years as an MP, part of which time I was London editor of The Irish Times and a frequent companion of his in Annie’s Bar, where MPs and journalists could meet deep in the labyrinth of Westminster’s corridors.

I personally came to respect him for many reasons, not the least of which was his ability to pick winners on the horse-track, and to enjoy, or occasionally endure, his mischievous sense of fun.

Three weeks after his maiden speech I drove Mallon to Cheltenham for the Annual Festival. On the outskirts of the town I was stopped for speeding. The policeman decided to let me off with a lecture. I was desperately anxious to drive on before he could change his mind when I heard a ‘gunder’ from the passenger seat. “Hey boy, come here.”

The officer walked round the car. “Yes, sir,” he asked Mallon, icily. “How can I help you?”

“Have you any tips?”

“Actually I do,” said the policeman. “Drive more slowly!”

Seamus Mallon, 1936-2020

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The Armagh MP himself could have given the policeman a good tip that day. He told everyone to back Dawn Run in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. It obliged at 15/8.

Finest moment

Indeed, it was horse-racing that arguably produced Mallon’s finest moment in his quest to bring together British, Irish, unionists and nationalists in a common cause. During inter-party negotiations at Lancaster House in 1992, he shared a hot tip for a horse running in the south of England. It won at 8-1, enriching everyone, including Sir Patrick Mayhew, who congratulated him on his “marvellous” prediction.

Quite clearly, people of all political persuasions should have listened to Seamus Mallon more often.

Unfortunately, the powerful appeal he made in his maiden speech for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland was not heard by the 14 Unionist MPs, other than Enoch Powell. They boycotted their fellow member’s big moment.

At Westminster, Mallon would often encounter a condescending attitude by ministers who would not take responsibility for the historical problem Britain had created over the centuries.

And when they did, in the 1990s, he experienced the hurt of being told by Tony Blair, “The trouble with you fellows, Seamus, is that you have no guns.”

It is typical of Mallon, however, that over time he befriended many British politicians and unionist figures, including David Trimble, with whom he developed a mutual liking for a glass of good red wine.

He was on good terms too with Ken Maginnis, with whom he once worked as a part-time barman in Warrenpoint. In his book, A Shared Home Place, Mallon related how Ken once threw out some unruly customers who came back and gave Mallon a kicking. He told Maginnis forever after, “You owe me one”.

In time, Mallon’s political opponents came to appreciate him as an honest, stubborn, conscientious Ulsterman, who dealt in straight talking, rather than in the concepts and ambiguities that unnerved unionists who preferred, as he put it, black and white language.

No one could deny his courage in attending the funerals of members of the RUC at a time when his unionist neighbours bitterly resented his criticism of police actions, and in going to the funerals of members of the IRA which he condemned for its violence, at which he was insulted and spat at.

Deep hurt

At a retirement ceremony in Newry to which I was invited many years later, and at which he was presented with a framed copy of his House of Commons maiden speech, he spoke of his deep hurt at such occasions. The most moving moment of the evening came when he related going to the wake of a policeman friend, only to hear his widow say, “Mr Mallon is not welcome in this house.”

Those of us who knew him saw another side of Seamus Mallon in those dark days. He was game for a good night out in London, or a wet afternoon’s highly-competitive golf in Warrenpoint, where he would take out his political frustrations by smashing the ball miles down the fairway.

In public, he could appear severe, even dour, but in private he had a great sense of humour. He enjoyed relating how Dougie Hutchinson, a DUP stalwart from Armagh, famously declared, during a heated council debate on the Irish language, “There will be no Irish place names about Drumnahunshin as long as I am here.”

The DUP man would nevertheless support Mallon in preserving Navan Fort outside Armagh City, one of the great forts of pre-Christian Gaelic Ireland.

I went back to read Mallon’s Commons speech recently. It includes the essential elements of his political outreach, unchanging from the day he entered politics.

He talked about the obscenity of violence and the need for a benevolent approach to understand the other fellow’s point of view. Because, whatever happened, unionists and nationalists would still be living in the north of Ireland. “We have two stark and clear choices. We can live together in generosity and compassion, or we can continue to die in bitter disharmony.”

He concluded: “I ask the unionists in the north of Ireland to say for the first time, “Come and build with us. Say yes.” It took some time but eventually they did.

As a former teacher, Mallon frequently used literary allusions to make his case, and the aphorism he chose for the last paragraph of his book sums up his long political struggle. “A society grows great, when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit.”

Conor O’Clery served as London Editor of The Irish Times, amongst other roles