Seamus Mallon: Forceful Northern politician who denounced IRA violence
Obituary: One-time deputy leader of SDLP won respect, admiration throughout Ireland
Seamus Mallon in 1984, holding up one of the pictures taken of the bugging equipment found in the house in Kilbarrack, Dublin, where he stayed occasionally. Photograph: Kevin McMahon
A proud and forceful man, Seamus Mallon came into politics despite thinking it a hopeless pursuit for the Northern nationalist minority.
Like so many others, the prime of his life was overcast by the violence of the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries, and the conviction that the security forces behaved in ways that fed support for the IRA and undermined respect for law and order. He became a household name, a striking media performer, enjoyed a brief spell in the Seanad as a Charles Haughey appointee and held a Westminster seat for 19 years.
Deputy to SDLP leader John Hume for two decades, Mallon was by far the more eloquent speaker, though outshone as a thinker and networker. The party’s spokesman on justice and security, he was an outspoken and lifelong opponent of armed republicanism.
But because he criticised the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Ulster Defence Regiment, some Protestants accused him of excusing IRA violence, even while republicans denounced his anti-IRA rhetoric. He became a unionist hate figure. The compensation was the respect and admiration he won throughout Ireland.
A scholar of nationalist politics remembered “having a drink with him in a Dublin bar, I think near RTÉ, and we were interrupted at least half a dozen times by punters wanting to shake his hand and buy him a drink”. From early days in BBC Northern Ireland discussions, dominated until that point by unionist voices, Mallon won recognition as someone who could take on confident figures such as Stormont minister John Taylor and “get nationalist viewers whooping”.
Possessed of an impressive voice and actorly timing, he also had a gift of phrase. His “Sunningdale for slow learners” became the most frequently quoted putdown of republicans and unionists alike, in derision at their eventual presence in a restored Stormont.
Like Hume (though Hume was comparatively cocooned in largely Catholic Derry), Mallon refused police protection. “I know those protecting me would be killed,” he told a London interviewer. Given his complaints about security force misdeeds, he also knew how awkward any such relationship would be.
Driving to and from his home in Co Armagh through years when both loyalists and republicans mounted bogus road-checks, he faced tense encounters with late-night security force patrols. The tension was increased by awareness of his wife Gertrude and daughter Órla waiting for his return in mainly Protestant, loyalist Markethill.
At least notionally, the apex of his political career was the job-share that fronted up the Stormont structures born of the Belfast Agreement, but being deputy first minister with first minister David Trimble was a gruelling affair. The true high point had been his part in the negotiation which delivered the 1998 agreement.
Unionists, officials and observers all acknowledged his tenacity. Hume had strained party loyalty and exhausted himself in helping to end IRA violence by bringing republicans into politics. Compared to the robust Mallon, his contribution in negotiations was sporadically effective at best.
With the much younger Mark Durkan, who would later succeed Hume as party leader, Mallon held a nationalist line against British officials, and at times Dublin ministers disposed to take the SDLP for granted, while showing a magnanimity to unionists that was later criticised by republicans.
Mallon and Durkan knew Trimble would not be able to accept explicit verbal equality in the form of two first ministers, and had not stipulated the posts should have equal pay. But agreeing the terms first and deputy first ministers, for example, allowed Ulster Unionist leader Trimble and his successor in the role, DUP leader the Revd Ian Paisley, to posture as though they were premiers while the equal status Deputy was a lower case, subordinate, “deputy”.
The SDLP negotiation team noted early that both British and Irish governments had begun to regard the still only slightly- constitutional republicans as crucial to a stable peace, therefore more central to negotiation than the SDLP, for so long the respected voice of constitutional, anti-violence nationalism.
The process bore out the concerns for the party Mallon and others had voiced during the earlier Hume/Adams talks, that Sinn Féin was deriving such advantage it would supplant the SDLP as the main nationalist party, as duly happened.
When Hume nominated him to share the top Stormont post with Trimble, the party saw it as Mallon’s due, but friction between Trimble and Mallon, two men with short fuses, was equally inevitable.
Trimble volatility was deemed allowable in a leader with Paisley at his heels and a party split 50/50 on the agreement, while Mallon snappishness supposedly indicated a flawed personality. More than a decade later, he told RTÉ interviewer John Bowman, in what by then had become a characteristically morose tone, that his three years in the post “had me wondering what the fates had against me”.
The son of a nurse and a primary school headmaster, Mallon never lived other than in his birthplace of Markethill, with holidays in Donegal, and for 13 years followed his father’s profession as a rural school principal.
As well as teaching, he played Gaelic football as a young man and became heavily involved in amateur dramatics with a cross-community element in Armagh city, producing, acting and at one point writing an award-winning play. Among those who remembered his days on the football field, some always thought he regarded politics as a robust GAA match, with little quarter asked or given.
Both parents had been involved in the War of Independence and on the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War. Their refusal to talk about their experience influenced their son to oppose violence. Their history also delayed his political involvement.
“The first time I voted in a district council election was when I stood myself in May 1973,” he recalled much later. “It was very much a unionist area, no nationalist organisation, no way of dealing with, to use a phrase unionists use nowadays, the democratic deficit.” But he joined the Mid-Armagh Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Civil Rights Movement, and two years into its existence in 1972, the SDLP.
In 2001, he told the Westminster profile writer Andrew Roth that he was agnostic in religion, and came to politics only “when the family of one of my pupils was trying to get out of a horribly dilapidated home and into a council house. At that time councillors had the power of allocation. That family was turned down by a [unionist] councillor who said: ‘No Catholic pig and his litter will ever get a home in Markethill while I am here!’.”
By 1973, he had taken that councillor’s seat, Roth noted, and within five years was the SDLP’s deputy leader. “He was also the first politician to be elected to both the Irish senate (in 1981) and the old Northern Ireland assembly (in 1982).”
Media performances and speech-making replaced the amateur drama, though for decades some admiring SDLP colleagues hoped he would return to writing. But having given up his principal-ship for politics, within four years Mallon had no salary following the collapse first of the assembly, then the constitutional convention. For the next five years, the family relied on Gertrude’s wage as a nurse, with Mallon taking substitute teaching posts.
He lost Haughey’s gift of the Seanad when a legal judgment launched by a unionist found he could not hold seats simultaneously North and South. Proffered by the Fianna Fáil leader to counter Hume’s affinity with Garret FitzGerald, and marred by the mysterious bugging of the family friends in Dublin with whom he stayed, which Mallon denounced as an anti-Fianna Fáil manoeuvre, the Seanad seat (and Haughey relationship) cost him support in the SDLP. The party, at Hume’s insistence, maintained relationships with all sides in the Dáil.
In the despairing late 1970s, for a time Mallon flirted with the idea of negotiated independence and later a confederal state. In the New Ireland Forum nationalist think-in which preceded the Anglo- Irish Agreement, he favoured Haughey’s unitary state option but when the agreement plumped for a formalised Irish dimension, Mallon backed it against Haughey’s rejection.
A year later, in the byelection forced by unionist resignations to protest against the agreement and on his fourth attempt, he won the Newry and Armagh Westminster seat, and aged 50 became a full-time, salaried politician.
He enjoyed London, where a sister lived, and was much more comfortable in the House of Commons than the Europhile Hume. Never confidants, nor co-ordinated, their relationship was tested to destruction in the weeks leading up to the IRA’s first “total cessation” in August 1994. On August 18th, Mallon said it was clear there would be no cessation. Republicans should “be removed from . . . the process of creating peace”.
At a hastily-arranged meeting of constituency representatives, (according to an insider’s account in The Fight for Peace, by Eamonn Mallie and David McKittrick) after others had voiced similar scepticism, Mallon said Hume’s MP colleagues were not being kept informed. “The thing was dead . . . we were being taken for a ride, mocked and laughed at.”
Hume insisted he had consulted them, had called into Mallon’s home to ask “Do you want to keep the party alive or people alive?” and said he was “going to the end of the road. You can get rid of me if I am wrong.” On August 31st, the IRA announced their cessation.
Mallon praised Hume’s achievement and paid him generous tribute in later years. He held his own dark view of peace-processed republicanism to the end.
But there was one last throw in him. A Shared Home Place, (Lilliput Press, 2019), which he wrote with journalist Andy Pollak, said a simple 50 per cent plus one majority in Border polls North and South could not deliver a stable, peaceful united Ireland.
Irish unity must wait until a majority – or at least a substantial minority – in the Protestant and unionist community supported it. This brought scornful and hostile responses from the then developing “Ireland’s Future”/Think 32 lobby, regarded by traditional SDLP circles as a Sinn Féin front, which said this was moving the goalposts, a call for a “supermajority”.
Mallon voiced it again in broadcasts, and wrote in The Irish Times that the SDLP had put a variation into the 1998 agreement, calling it parallel consent, requiring that key Stormont Assembly decisions must be supported by parties representing both traditions.
Seamus Mallon’s wife Gertrude Mallon predeceased him in October 2016. Their daughter Órla, grand-daughter Lara and son-in-law Mark survive them