‘Men like Seamus Mallon don’t come along too often’
SDLP members past and present pay tribute to party heavyweight who has died aged 83
Seamus Mallon was an architect of the Northern Ireland peace process and a key figure in negotiating the 1998 Belfast Agreement. Photograph: PA
Last night representatives of the SDLP’s foundation generation and current one reflected on the political and historic importance of Seamus Mallon, who has died after a short illness aged 83.
“He was a giant of a man,” said his friend, Bríd Rodgers, a contemporary and former colleague in the Northern Executive where he served as deputy first minister from 1998 to 2001, with Ulster Unionist David Trimble as first minister.
“Ireland has lost one of its most fierce champions for justice, equality and peace,” said present SDLP leader Colum Eastwood (36), recently elected as MP for Foyle.
Mr Mallon from Markethill, Co Armagh, died on Friday. He was diagnosed with cancer late last year and, according to Ms Rodgers who last visited him on Christmas Eve, was prepared and reconciled for what was to come.
“To be honest he was happier to talk about politics than his illness,” she said. “He was delighted that the SDLP won the two seats in the Westminster election [Foyle and South Belfast]. ‘People are beginning to catch themselves on,’ he told me. Typical Seamus.”
And recalling their days from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, through to the foundation of the party and failed Sunningdale powersharing executive of 1974, to the heady days of the 1998 Belfast Agreement and, finally, the powersharing institutions just restored, Ms Rodgers characterised Mr Mallon as a politician with a “fixed moral compass”.
She recalled also how he was assailed from many sides, including facing death threats, for the principled stances he took throughout his political life.
‘A force of nature’
Mr Eastwood said he joined the SDLP “because of people like Seamus Mallon”, describing him as “a force of nature”.
Mr Mallon was a former teacher. He served as MP for Newry and Armagh and also as Assembly member for the same constituency. From 1979 he was deputy leader of the SDLP with John Hume as leader, both men viewed as pivotal in achieving the peace. The two had occasional differences but were respectful of each other.
With John Hume quite ill it was last night left to his wife, Pat Hume, to pay tribute. “History will remember Seamus as one of the great Irish patriots and peacemakers,” she said.
And she added: “Men like Seamus Mallon don’t come along too often.”
Mr Mallon is predeceased by his wife Gertrude and is survived by his daughter Orla, son-in-law Mark and granddaughter Lara.