The courage and generosity of Seamus Mallon: a book introduction

This is my abridged introduction to a new book, ‘A Shared Home Place’ by Seamus Mallon (with Andy Pollak) which is published today by Lilliput Press.

Courage and generosity: those are the two words that come to mind when I think of Seamus Mallon. Courage because for twenty-five years between the 1970s and 1990s he spoke out ceaselessly against violence from whatever quarter it came, republican or loyalist or state forces. As a result he suffered constant threats (including death threats); physical attacks on him, his family and his home; intimidation and vilification. He vowed that he would attend every funeral in his Armagh and Newry constituency, whether the victim was civilian, IRA or security force member, and frequently took face-to-face abuse from victims’ families for that brave stand. He publicly condemned every IRA and loyalist killing in the harshest terms.

At the same time he denounced collusion, harassment and sectarian bias by the RUC and the Ulster Defence Regiment, and demanded their reform or abolition. In the face of British government and unionist resistance and hostility, he demanded justice and equality in the actions of the police and the courts for the nationalist people of Northern Ireland, who had long been treated as second-class citizens at best and dangerous subversives at worst in their home place.

It is also often forgotten what an important role he played in the extremely difficult negotiations leading to the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement. Garret FitzGerald, not his favourite Southern politician, said after the Agreement was signed that Mallon’s ‘will be amongst the names to which history will pay tribute. Throughout this negotiation his steadiness, clarity and rationality have won universal respect in complementing John Hume’s long-sighted vision.’ Senator George Mitchell noted that he was ‘an important and influential figure’ in those talks who was ‘liked and respected on all sides for his intelligence and integrity.’

However, he was the opposite of a soft touch. The loyalist leader David Ervine described his negotiating modus operandi: ‘He was skilful, incisive and brutal. He could take somebody’s scrotum and slice off their balls – it would be over in a second; they wouldn’t know it was done, such was his skill.’ Former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, John Reid, once said Mallon was the only politician he had ever met who could ‘make “Good Morning” sound like a threat.’

Sean Ó hUiginn, the senior Irish diplomat who was one of the architects of the 1990s peace process, summed up Mallon’s importance: ‘He personified the decent, put upon strand of Northern nationalism in a wonderfully attractive way. People in the Republic would say that if this good, honourable man is complaining, there must be something to his complaints. He thus had a very important and under-appreciated role in keeping the benign elements in the South engaged to some extent with the North during the Troubles, rather than falling back into the easy distancing mechanism that all Northerners were as bad as each other and were impossible people who could not be talked to or reasoned with.’

Despite his sometimes dour self-presentation, it is difficult to find a Northern politician of any stripe to say a bad word about Mallon. Ulster Unionist deputy leader John Taylor called him ‘a good friend who will work for the good of Northern Ireland’. For Rita O’Hare of Sinn Féin he was ‘a tough negotiator, a formidable opponent, but always honest and honourable.’ The surgeon and senator John Robb said his main strength was ‘his simple, absolute, complete integrity.’ ‘I would trust Seamus Mallon with my life. I wouldn’t say that about many other politicians on my side or the other side’, said Ulster Unionist security spokesman Ken Maginnis.

Unlike John Hume, who was to some extent insulated from the surrounding violence as the uncrowned king of nationalist Derry, Mallon had to live in and represent an area in which the murderous activities of republican and loyalist paramilitaries, along with rogue elements of the security forces, pushed the inhabitants of both communities into a savage internecine war mindset. In Armagh he personally witnessed the Northern conflict at its most depraved and sectarian.

Generosity because he has always been sensitive to the fears and needs of the unionist community among whom he grew up. Even today he sits comfortably sipping coffee in a Protestant-owned cafe in his native village of Markethill, surrounded by evangelical pamphlets and biblical verses on the wall. This makes him unique among Northern nationalist politicians, with the possible exception of Gerry Fitt (who never called himself a nationalist anyway). Mallon remains a proud nationalist who believes in the long run only Irish unity can solve the deep historical divisions that have blighted Northern Ireland.

But he believes with equal passion that his unionist friends and neighbours around Markethill, personified by the farmer and murdered police reservist whom he calls ‘Jack Adams’, have as much right to live in peace and without fear in Ireland as the community he led with such distinction over the years. And he believes his nationalist community, now they are moving into the ascendant, must show the generosity to unionists that was sadly absent from the way in which they were treated by the unionists during fifty years of one-party rule at Stormont.

Courage and generosity are there in abundance in Seamus Mallon’s central proposal in this book: that Irish unity must wait until there is a majority – or at least a substantial minority – in the Protestant and unionist community prepared to support it. This is what he calls ‘Parallel Consent’ for unity. He knows he will be damned from the heavens by most nationalists, who will say that just as the prospect of a numerical majority for unity – based largely on the demographic growth of the Northern Catholic community – is within sight, he has proposed moving the posts so that their long-dreamed-of goal of a united Ireland is pushed further into the future.

Equally, he knows there will be little welcome for his proposal in the fearful and begrudging minds of many unionists, who will see it as an excuse to dig their heels in for another generation rather than as a new and nobler way to come to terms with the medium-term prospect of unity by genuine consent. However, he believes that there is another unionist constituency, those who voted for the Good Friday Agreement and against Brexit, who are open to looking at unity, or at least a greater accommodation with the South, in a new way after nearly a century of division and conflict.

Above all, he stresses the importance of generosity between the Northern communities. After several centuries of the United Kingdom being a ‘cold house’ for Irish nationalists, the independent Irish state being feared as a ‘cold house’ for unionists, and Northern Ireland being a ‘cold house’ for Northern nationalists, he hopes his own community will demonstrate a new generosity to their unionist neighbours as the prospect of Irish unity becomes visible on the horizon. Thus he hopes (against hope, some might say) that unionists and nationalists can eventually be united, after centuries of fear and conflict, ‘in all the diversity of their identities and traditions’ in the ‘harmony and friendship’ of the post Good Friday Agreement amendment to the Irish Constitution.

At this late stage in his life Mallon is proposing this dramatic reconfiguration of the traditional nationalist demand because he knows that a simple majority for unity in a Border Poll in the foreseeable future can only be a narrow one: probably little more than the bare numerical majority laid down as a blunt instrument in the otherwise marvellously nuanced 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Unusually among nationalist leaders, he knows his unionist neighbours intimately; he knows what they are capable of when they feel coerced or threatened, and he knows this will probably mean a return to, and possibly an intensification of, the inter-communal violence of the 1968 to 1998 period.

He knows from his own experience of the darkest years of murder gangs and counter-murder gangs in Armagh in the 1970s and 1980s, and of being Deputy First Minister during the most terrifying Drumcree confrontation in 1998, that at times of political instability – and there can be no deeper instability than the period following a narrow vote for unity – Northern Ireland is always in danger of going over the edge into outright civil war. He has also seen the new and angry divisions opening up in Britain following a narrow Brexit referendum vote.

Mallon is careful to position his proposal to require the Parallel Consent of the two Northern communities for unity firmly in the context of a pre-Border Poll Review of the Good Friday Agreement, insisting it should be seen as an evolution of that Agreement. He also proposes a new version of the 1992-93 Opsahl Commission to initiate a wider public discussion on whether and how Irish unity can be brought about as peacefully and consensually as possible. He believes this double process should lead to the redefinition of the simple majority consent principle contained in the Good Friday Agreement, so that an eventual referendum on unity can gain as wide a measure of consent as possible.

Such a deliberative process should also work to resolve the hard questions that will be raised in the event of such a vote for unity, and which are almost completely absent from political and public discourse in today’s Republic of Ireland. How and over what period of time will the British element in the governance of Northern Ireland be replaced by an Irish one? Is some kind of joint authority or joint sovereignty feasible during a transitional period? What parliamentary, consultative, public administration and public finance structures will be put in place both during and after that transitional phase? How would justice, law and order be guaranteed during the probable breakdown of law and order that too precipitate a transition could cause, with the danger that revived loyalist paramilitaries would violently resist it and revived republican paramilitaries seek to enforce it? What guarantees will be put in place so that the proud British identity of the unionists will be protected, cherished and incorporated into the institutions, ethos and symbols of the new state? Would that identity be better protected under a separate Northern regional administration? What kind of continuing British government involvement will this require?

All these issues need to be thrashed out in as mutually respectful and open-minded a manner as possible. It will take a considerable time. The peace process that started with the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, whose high point was the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and which dragged on until the devolution of policing and justice in 2010, lasted almost seventeen years; or twenty-two years if one dates its beginning from the first Hume-Adams talks in 1988. Mallon suggests it could take even longer to prepare for the complex and potentially destabilising consequences of a Border Poll that might lead to unity.

Because of the growth of the Catholic population in Northern Ireland, the theoretical possibility of a narrow majority for unity in a Border Poll is perhaps only twenty to thirty years away. Now is the time to begin thinking deeply about the consequences of this huge change for the happiness and harmony of the people of Ireland. Sinn Féin, fiercely dogmatic in their demand for ‘accelerated reunification post-Brexit’ – in party chairman Declan Kearney’s words – are incapable of leading that thinking. We can only hope that wiser and more generous nationalist leaders in the Seamus Mallon mould will emerge to engage in meaningful and empathetic negotiation with unionism.

In the meantime the wisdom of Mallon’s words about the two traditions learning to share their common home place, Northern Ireland, should be listened to. That is the only way forward to a new Ireland based on the twenty-first century challenge of how to bring together diverse peoples, with all the major complications that implies, rather than the nineteenth century nationalist obsession with the unity of territory.

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3 Responses to The courage and generosity of Seamus Mallon: a book introduction

  1. Brendan Kennelly says:

    I enjoyed this essay very much. I am looking forward to reading the book. Congratulations on its publication. Brendan

  2. Conleth Bradley says:

    Well done Andy and thank you also for your incredible efforts over the years.
    Both yourself and Séamus inspired my generation and continue to do so.

  3. gendjinn says:

    50%+1 is a perfectly democratic solution, Unionism and its allies won’t be moving the goalposts now that we are a handful of years from achieving re-unificaiton. If Unionism wishes to kick off and return to being terrorists in response to being democratically defeated, well they’d only be showing us their true colours wouldn’t they?

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