The Seamus Mallon I knew: a brave and generous Irish chieftain

My much-admired friend Seamus Mallon was buried yesterday. This was my tribute to him in yesterday’s ‘Belfast Telegraph’.

Courage and generosity: those are the two words that come to mind when I think of Seamus Mallon. Courage because for 25 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 felt passionately that the least he could do as a public representative in the middle of the bitter conflict which blighted County Armagh in those years was to stand alongside his neighbours – all his neighbours – in the face of the terror and counter-terror that threatened them.

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 UDR, and demanded their reform or abolition. In the face of government and unionist hostility, he demanded justice and equality in the actions of the security forces 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.

Generosity because he was always sensitive to the fears and needs of the unionist community among whom he grew up. I used to go for coffee with him in a Protestant-owned cafe in his native village of Markethill (a 90% Protestant village), where he sat comfortably surrounded by evangelical pamphlets and biblical verses on the wall. This made him unique among nationalist politicians, with the possible exception of Gerry Fitt (who never called himself a nationalist anyway). Seamus was always a proud nationalist who believed in the long run that only Irish unity could solve the deep historical divisions that have cursed Northern Ireland.

But he also believed that his unionist friends and neighbours around Markethill, personified by the farmer and murdered police reservist whom he called ‘Jack Adams’, had 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 believed his nationalist community, as they were moving into the ascendant, had to show the generosity to unionists that was sadly absent from the way in which they were treated by the unionists during 50 years of one-party rule at Stormont.

He lived through terrible times when County Armagh seemed on the brink of actual civil war. He wrote in his 2019 memoir, A Shared Home Place: “Neighbour killing neighbour has a putrid smell of evil that seeps into an entire community. Each murderous act begot its counterpart, until revenge almost became a duty to be fulfilled. It enveloped every crevice of life, spreading anger, suspicion, fear, hatred and ultimately despair. It left a dark cloud of deep suffering and loss that will endure for many decades.”

He was left with some haunting memories. The murder in January 1976 in their home of the three Reavey brothers, innocent young Catholics with absolutely no connection to any paramilitary group, by a UVF gang which included rogue policemen, hit him particularly hard. The Reavey family, ordinary hard-working country people, were good friends, and he called their mother Sadie “a saintly woman”.

The day after the Reaveys were killed the IRA shot dead 10 innocent Protestant workers at nearby Kingsmill. Seamus said he would never forget walking up a wintry street in Bessbrook to attend the funeral of one of those men. “I felt desperately alone as a nationalist politician among those grieving unionists; I could hear my own footsteps.”

He witnessed the death of a young policeman, Snowdon Corkey, another neighbour, who was shot in the middle of Markethill where Seamus was waiting for his 13 year old daughter Orla to come out of the chemists. He ran to the cattle truck under which Corkey had rolled and where the effluent from the cows was seeping down on top of him. “So there I was on my knees and the young policeman dying beside me. ‘Seamie’, he said. ‘Tell them all I love them”.

And then after all the heartache came the miracle of the peace process. Seamus was the SDLP’s lead negotiator in the 22 months of extremely difficult negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement. My favourite story was from the early hours of that Good Friday morning, when he and John Hume went down triumphantly to the Irish government’s room at Stormont to tell Bertie Ahern they had finally reached agreement with David Trimble’s Ulster Unionists.

As he was speaking, what appeared to be a sleep-walking Mo Mowlam came in, shoeless as usual, looking like Lady Macbeth. “She sat down beside me, put her head on my shoulder and went to sleep. I let her rest there and carried on speaking. A few minutes later she lifted her head and in pure schoolgirl English exclaimed “Fucking brill, Seamus’ and went back to sleep. I think I may have been in tears at that point.”

Seamus Mallon was quite simply a great Irishman – a “great Irish chieftain”, in the words of the eulogy by his close friend, the former Irish diplomat and first Southern Joint Secretary of the North South Ministerial Council, Tim O’Connor, at his funeral. He was a doughty fighter for peace, reconciliation and justice in the most harrowing of circumstances.

Despite his sometimes dour self-presentation, it was difficult to find a Northern politician of any stripe to say a bad word about him. John Taylor called him “a good friend who will work for the good of Northern Ireland.” For Rita O’Hare of Sinn Fein, 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 Ken Maginnis.

Above all, he was a genuinely good man. Sean Ó hUiginn, the senior Irish diplomat who was one of the architects of the peace process, said: “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.” In 2001 he gave up the possibility of leading his beloved SDLP in order to stand down as deputy first minister to care for his even more beloved wife Gertrude, who was seriously ill with dementia.

They do not make politicians like Seamus Mallon these days. Northern Ireland will be lucky to see his like again.

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4 Responses to The Seamus Mallon I knew: a brave and generous Irish chieftain

  1. Barry O'Donnell says:

    RIP. Very moving. A decent man whom stayed decent.

  2. John O'Donnell says:

    Great piece, Andy. And so great to get the book out before he left us. RIP.

  3. Eoin Stephenson says:

    A founding father of a really united Ireland.

  4. Brendan Bartley says:

    This is a lovely account of a man I now realise I did not appreciated enough. Thank you Andy. And Rest in Peace, Seamus

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