By playing number two to John Hume, Seamus Mallon may not get the place in history he deserves, writes Fergus Finlay
SEAMUS MALLON was, in no sense, a second fiddle sort of man. He was tough, determined, resolute. I always imagined, when I knew him slightly in the 1990s, that if there was a boy you’d want in the school yard beside you in the face of bullies, it would be Seamus Mallon.
If there was another team-mate you’d want beside you in a mucky, dour, football match, it would be Seamus Mallon. He was utterly fearless, totally direct and honest, and completely loyal.
He allowed himself to play second fiddle to John Hume, to be his deputy and to be seen as the number two. In any other political party on this island, he would have had a long leadership career.
If he had chosen to live and work in the politics of the republic, he could have been a great minister.
He chose the number two position because he knew Hume needed someone to have that kind of support. Hume was the dreamer, the visionary, the man who mixed with the great of the world, the man who won the Nobel Peace Prize. Mallon was the one who fought Hume’s battles on the ground. Hume was a genuinely great man, and in part, that was because Mallon always had his back.
Hume and Mallon weren’t just among the founders of the SDLP. Between them, they were the heart and soul of the SDLP, as leader and deputy leader, for more than 20 years. If Hume was the soul, Mallon was definitely the heart.
And they were the heart and soul of the peace process, from long before there was a peace process. They were together during the Sunningdale negotiations. They sat side-by-side during the New Ireland Forum. When Provisional Sinn Féin and all shades of Ulster unionism made common cause by rejecting the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, Mallon was indefatigable in stiffening the resolve of democratic nationalists throughout the island of Ireland.
And when peace was made, in no small part due to his steadfastness, he was the first to serve as deputy first minister in the power-sharing government that emerged, working alongside David Trimble. Unlike a pair of their successors, no-one ever referred to Mallon and Trimble as the chuckle brothers. Their relationship was dour and business-like, but when Mallon decided to make something work, he made it work.
I mentioned his steadfastness. There were times when he and Hume quarrelled and fell out with each other. I think, for example, that Mallon was dismayed by the emergence of the famous Hume/Adams approach, when it appeared that Hume and Gerry Adams had agreed a document to be transmitted by the Irish government to the British (this was before the IRA ceasefire).
There was a large element of fiction to the whole thing, and it turned out to be counterproductive. While the British government could (and did) accept documents that contained IRA thinking, they couldn’t and wouldn’t accept anything that had IRA fingerprints on it.
Mallon knew that, and got it, but he wasn’t consulted by Hume.
I can remember as a result a very tense meeting in Government Buildings in Dublin, when Hume and Mallon sat at opposite ends of a long table. They didn’t just refuse to talk to each other, they couldn’t even look at each other.
But whatever happened in private, Mallon would never let his disapproval of his leader show in public. He believed it was absolutely essential to the quest for peace that the SDLP would always speak with one voice, and would always offer a united front.
Even after the SDLP suffered the consequences of the peace process for which it had been largely responsible, even after it was cannibalised by Sinn Féin, which he had accurately foreseen and predicted, Mallon never allowed a word of criticism against his leader on that account.
There were a number of things that characterised Mallon the man. He was honest but could be blunt, warm, and compassionate and could be stinging. If he disagreed with you, you knew about it.
He and Dick Spring were friends, but on one occasion, at a delicate moment in the process, Spring suggested that the temporary suspension of one bit of the north-south architecture might give unionism a bit of space to move. When asked for comment, Mallon growled: “The only useful suspenders are those that hold up trousers.”
HE had two other defining characteristics. As a civil rights activist, as a politician, and a public figure, and just as a citizen of Northern Ireland, he experienced more than his share of violence.
More than anyone else I’ve ever come across, from the start of his life to the end of it, he was viscerally, utterly opposed to violence in any form or for any purpose. There was nothing, in his view, that could ever justify violence against his fellow man or woman.
And on the other said of that coin, I’ve never met a public figure in Ireland more completely committed to democratic processes, methods, and outcomes.
He accepted defeat graciously if it happened democratically, just as he genuinely sought to make his many democratic victories work for everyone he represented, whether they had voted for him or not.
Because he chose to be number two to his great leader, because he chose to have Hume’s back through thick or thin, Mallon may not get the place in history he deserves.
But he does deserve to be remembered always as a great democrat, a great man of peace, and a man who did immense service, for all his long years, to the people of Ireland.