Seamus Mallon has hope for party he gave his life to
SDLP’s Mallon and Hume shared hard times and had rows – ‘but we never fell out’
Former SDLP leader Seamus Mallon. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times
Seamus Mallon is in reflective mode sitting in his study in his bungalow in Markethill, Co Armagh. Outside it is wet and gray, but Mallon can look straight across the landscape and south to Slieve Gullion, taking in a broad sweep of what was his constituency of Newry and Armagh.
Startlingly, during a long conversation, he wonders, like Yeats, if anything he said or did in a long life in politics had caused people to die.
Mallon represented Newry and Armagh in Westminster from a byelection victory in 1986 until he retired in 2005. Without him the SDLP could not defend the ground, leaving Sinn Féin the victor.
“Yes, it did break my heart to see the seat going,” he admits.
Personality is important in politics and with the retreat of the big beasts of Mallon and John Hume the fortunes of the SDLP similarly reversed. “Things could be better,” says Mallon. But he is not without hope for the party to which he gave his political life
The years, predictably, have taken their toll. The day after this interview he was heading into Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry for a check-up, his chest causing him some gyp, decades of smoking taking a toll, although he is off cigarettes for 16 years.
He is 79, but otherwise he is in decent shape. His appetite is good, he can still take an occasional glass of Jameson or Power’s at his local in Markethill.
During 60 years in public life, beginning with the civil rights campaign in the 1960s, Mallon deliberated over every question, taking his time, keen to avoid cliché, respecting the word. Today it is the same.
His relationship with Hume could be difficult. The two were said to dislike each other intensely, a charge Mallon denies. Asked if “prickly” properly captures the nature of the relationship, he replies with a paradox, but a beautifully-formed one: “It might be fair but I don’t think it is accurate.”
The years, however, have brought empathy, particularly for Hume’s wife, Pat, who recently told RTÉ’s Miriam O’Callaghan of her husband’s dementia.
“I have great sympathy for him. I have known for some time the nature of his illness. I know what it is like. My wife has the same illness. It’s tragic to see a man of his ability not being able to function. I spoke to John at the party conference in November. He recognised me but midway through our conversation I had to remind him who I was.”
He talks fondly of his wife Gertrude. A carer, Marie, helps to maintain domestic equilibrium, as he puts it, during the day. She finishes after 7.30pm and then he is in charge. “I couldn’t manage without Marie.”
He also has the comfort of regular visits from his daughter Orla, her husband Mark, and his 5-year-old granddaughter Lara. He has good neighbours.
Hume and he had “differences of opinion on many things, but we talked it out”, he says. “We had strong views about what was happening, but we never fell out. We had rows, but we never had a decent row.”
And what did he think of Hume’s place in Irish history? “He will be looked upon as in the O’Connell, Parnell league.”
And would he give him that?
“I would because I know him probably better than most, and his capacity was something remarkable.”
Hard timesThe times they shared together were hard. Northern Ireland was different then, soldiers and police on the streets, republicans and loyalist paramilitaries fighting, bombs exploding, people dying, failure upon political failure to find some means of halting the bloodshed.
“[It ]was fraught, it was on the edge. Every day brought a different dimension to the problem, things had to be decided on the hoof,” says Mallon.
The SDLP’s conferences in those days were legendary. Sinn Féiners kept themselves to themselves. Unionists, with exceptions, were temperate, but the SDLP people were a sociable crew, though there could be tension between the Derry, Belfast and Armagh contingents, and particularly between the Hume and Mallon brigades, nursed by a sense of grievance that Derry was not keeping Armagh fully in the loop.
Growing up in Armagh, unionist “discrimination was a way of life” . He got involved in civil rights in the early 1960s following a local incident when a man with a large family – still alive, now in his 90s, “who was living in a hovel – no electricity, to running water” – applied for a council house.
He went to a local unionist councillor, who told him: “No Catholic pig or his litter will get a house here as long as I am here.”
A local doctor and a publican, both Protestants, supported Mallon and the man “eventually” got his house. “They were brave men to do that.”
Like his father Frank, Mallon was a teacher, a good county Armagh Gaelic footballer too. As a young man he wrote a play which won the All-Ireland amateur drama one-act award. He also performed in the play. That experience of the stage served him well – he was always the SDLP’s strongest speaker
From the 1970s he was involved in a series of failed attempts to end the violence. Often there was little real politics and less money – especially after Mallon quit teaching to concentrate on politics. Often it was Gertrude’s nurse’s salary that kept the household afloat. Mallon stayed at home, without pay, while Hume was feted abroad. Some noted his unpaid presence on the ground while Hume was feted abroad.
He was appointed to the Seanad for a brief period in 1982 by the then taoiseach Charlie Haughey, making him the only Irish politician to sit in Westminster, Stormont and Leinster House. The Seanad salary, brief as it was, was welcome in lean times.
The Seanad was an “interesting experiment”, he says. “I got on very well with Charlie. I don’t think he ever got the credit for his political ability or for his capacity to pass legislation…He was a man with a lot of irons in many fires.”
In 1979 Hume took over the SDLP leadership from Gerry Fitt. Mallon became deputy leader. From then on the two were the main faces of the party.
Fiercely critical of the IRA, Mallon also condemned much of London’s anti-terror legislation and condemned the alleged RUC shoot-to-kill policy that operated in Armagh in 1982.
Where Hume occasionally might have talked about “post-nationalism”, Mallon was always a constitutional nationalist to the core. He could be seen as green-tinged. “I am a nationalist. That is my view, it always has been, it still is.”
Mallon says that he still hopes for some form of united Ireland – “a confederal Ireland might be possible”.
He says he is “mostly” well got in Markethill, which would be more than 90 per cent unionist. Remembering the dark times in mid-Ulster and the so-called “Murder Triangle” that existed around Portadown, Lurgan and Dungannon, Mallon recalls late nights driving home along dangerous lonely roads. The memory of Snowden Corkey, a local man from close by in Glennane, will never leave him. It was November 1982.
“I went into town to the chemist with Orla when she was about 10. I heard what I thought were planks dropping off a lorry. Then I knew – it was gunfire. I had seen Snowden going down to the security barrier in the town with another officer. I went over to a cattle truck, and Snowden had fallen under it, and the other young lad was beside the truck. ‘Tell them all I love them’, was Snowden’s last words. I tried to hold him, to keep his head up…I would have known him from when he was a child.”
Two full-time RUC reservists, Ronnie Greer (24) and Corkey (40), died in the Irish National Liberation Army attack.
Mallon shudders at the memory. The Troubles, he says, were “harrowing: friends being killed, people you know being slaughtered…”
“I insisted to myself that in this area, which is very much a unionist area, that I was going to call at those houses, that I would go to those funerals. And, Jesus, that was difficult. I was welcomed at most but I was turned away from two or three. I never had a feeling like that…”
TraumatisedNorthern Ireland remains a traumatised society, particularly for those who lost loved ones or were maimed or injured. However, perhaps, the younger generation can be spared.
Then out of the blue, he adds: “The one nagging thing that I have had over the years is: ‘was there anything I said or did that cost lives’?”
It is a question that few, if any, would place at Mallon’s door, but still he asks it.
Maybe it is the bleak mid-winter feel to the day that provokes such soul-searching. He loves literature. Currently, he is reading Colm Toibin’s “interesting and disturbing” The Testament of Mary. He says his Catholic faith helps, and that he still says a prayer at night. He occasionally rereads the American Catholic mystic Thomas Merton for comfort.
But neither has he lost his combative side. He was always wry and acerbic, his “Sunningdale for slow learners” jibe about unionism late in the day learning the value of powersharing an example of that mordant bite.
Over the years Mallon has faced a battering from republicanism and loyalism, reflected in graffiti painted near his home respectively from both sides during the Troubles, one saying “Seamus Mallon is an informer”, the other “Hang Seamus Mallon –f-ck the Pope.”
His take on the latter graffito – “I always felt I got the better part of that deal” – still raises a smile.
Then, or now, Mallon will not allow Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness or Provisional republicanism to gain kudos for the IRA ceasefires. “I couldn’t and wouldn’t, given what they were responsible for. When I think of Jean McConville and that wee man in Derry, Patsy Gillespie [ he died when used as a “human bomb” to kill six British soldiers in Derry in 1990]… How do you suspend that?”
The Kevin McGuigan and Gerard Jock Davison killings shows that not only is the IRA still operating but that it still has an army council. “Is there still the IRA? Of course there is,” says Mallon.
“My firm view is that they have an influence on the political decisions and activities of Sinn Féin. Their influence there is very substantial. There is another complexity to it as well; there is a relationship between the IRA and the dissidents. In many areas there is a very close relationship.”
How does he know this? He says he has his own intelligence, and adds: “It’s based on watching people, the same families…you think they are daggers drawn, then you find out they are not.”
He remains to be convinced about the latest Stormont agreement and its promises to tackle cross-Border crime:
“Not a single person, North or South, has got a custodial sentence for diesel laundering. I can’t figure that out because hardly a week goes by when they haven’t found another shed. So, there is no point in setting up a task force unless it knows exactly what it is going to do and how it is going to do it.”
He talks about the murders of Paul Quinn and Garda Adrian Donohoe: Quinn (21) from south Armagh beaten to death in a barn in Co Monaghan in 2007; Garda Donohoe (41)shot dead by an armed gang during a credit union robbery in Co Louth in 2013. He says it is well known locally who was involved. However, the IRA-inspired “control and omerta” code means the guilty go unpunished. Criminality and paramilitarism overlap. “You can become a very rich man a year after you leave school and that is what is happening. That eats in. It is offensive and it can’t be good for society, it is corrupting society.”
Up to a point, he concedes that Sinn Féin is well organised and that the SDLP has not measured up. But his antipathy is hard. “Sour grapes? It’s far from it. We all saw the things they were prepared to do to get what they wanted, and they failed miserably to get what they wanted – Brits Out!”
But how did Sinn Féin so emphatically trump the SDLP? Money, is one factor, he says. However, there is also the effect of the secret talks between Adams and Hume that helped to lead to the 1994 ceasefire. It marks another difference between the two men: Hume was solely focused on getting peace; Mallon also wanted peace but he wanted a future for the SDLP too. “My worry was that we were being used and I said that openly. I did not like the way they were using John to validate themselves.”
Hume’s generosity opened doors for Sinn Féin in Dublin, London and Washington. “The danger always was that you were giving their activities credibility in an offshoot kind of way.”
The 1994 and 1997 ceasefires brought relief and hope, but Mallon believes that a huge opportunity was missed.
He seldom uses the words Sinn Féin or the IRA. Instead he refers to “they” or “them”.
“In the two years of talks prior to the Good Friday agreement there was little negotiation done by them. Why? Because they’d already done their negotiations with America, with the Irish government, the British government.
“They had already got assurances as to the things they wanted and demanded. In other words they were telling the sovereign governments that they were writing the script.”
The British and Irish governments should been tougher and demanded decommissioning.
“I very firmly believe that if the two governments had taken the view that, ‘right, we can’t as governments, as sovereign governments, we can’t do anything but demand their illegal guns’. If that had been in the script they would have gone for less.”
Instead, seven years of stop-start politics passed before the IRA did disarm, or mostly disarm, in 2005 – a period when a lot of the inspirational marrow was sucked out of the agreement.
He does not accept the argument that because handing over arms would be tantamount to “surrender” in republican eyes that it couldn’t happen in 1998, or that the best deal possible was achieved. “I believe they could have been pressurised.”
He concedes that the SDLP has taken an electoral “battering”. But he is still baffled by how voters turned away from the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists.
“It is doubly perplexing,” he admits. “The curious Northern Ireland complex is that when faced with the type of politics which can make people feel safe and confident in themselves they have turned to the biggest bully and that applies to both sides.
“We have the political ground which actually protected the process during the Troubles and which essentially created the Good Friday agreement thoroughly debilitated in electoral terms.”
It’s just a puzzle as far as he is concerned. “Some times there are no immediate or easy answers.”
Good governanceCurrently some in the SDLP believe the party should quit the Stormont power-sharing executive to offer time to reboot in opposition. Mallon, however, is at one with former Progressive Democrats leader Mary Harney’s view that a politician’s worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition.
“The community we represent has sat too long on the opposition benches. It is better to be in, at least to ensure some type of good governance, than find ourselves outside. The opposition benches are no fun.”
Mallon was deputy first minister in the first Northern Executive from 1998 to 2001 working as the Odd Couple, working testily with first minister David Trimble. “We keep in touch from time to time.”
He could also have had the SDLP leadership when Hume stood down in 2001. But it was not to be. Mark Durkan took over as leader and deputy first minister. “Would I have liked to have taken the leadership? I very much would, but then Gertrude had dementia. She had been in hospital that year. I felt in my conscience I had no option.”
Nevertheless, he still carries weight as a party grandee. Last month he supported Colum Eastwood against Alasdair McDonnell for the party leadership. Eastwood called to Markethill to seek his formal blessing. Mallon thinks Eastwood has a chance of regaining some of the lost ground. “He is a very able young fellow, he handles himself well, he has a good brain, he has vision. The business of the rest of the party is to ensure that that vision is translated into action, especially in terms of electoral results.”
But Mallon worries that the constantly agitated and precarious nature of politics has not given people a chance to settle into a composed and regular form of co-existence. “The community is still thrashing about.”
But the SDLP must keep going, must not despair. “There is no wheel that does not turn, and that wheel of political life will eventually turn away from the big bully parties on both sides and create a society where we can live together.”
Given Sinn Féin’s strength that could take time, he concedes. Nevertheless, the SDLP must not give up. Come the Assembly elections in the brighter days of April and May he once more plans to make his own contribution.
“Oh, I’ll be out, I’ll be canvassing.”