Seamus Mallon, 1936-2020
Seamus Mallon, who will be buried in his beloved Markethill in South Armagh today, may not quite be numbered in that trinity of the greatest Irishmen of modern times — O’Connell, Parnell, and Hume — but it is certain that John Hume would not have reached that status, nor sustained it, without the enduring support and friendship of Mallon. They enjoyed a long, fruitful if occasionally fraught relationship. One concentrated on securing international support for their cause while the other — Mallon — concentrated on Belfast and Lon don, Dublin too. This duality, this campaigning on two fronts occasionally stretched their relationship as SDLP party leader Hume did not always feel the need, often with good reason, to share the minutiae of his work. However, they never lost sight of the greater prize.
The relative peace this island enjoys today is irrefutable testimony to their moral judgement and the absolute clarity of their position. That happy situation cannot, sadly, yet be taken for granted. Hume and Mallon were united, unwavering, utterly consistent, and disinterested in their core belief that political violence is always wrong, unacceptable, and counter-productive. Both men condemned terror and murder irrespective of its source: Republican, loyalist, or state.
Mallon did it with such force that he put his life in jeopardy, especially during long, unavoidable journeys across the bandit territory of nighttime South Armagh. He would not be silenced, he would not be cowed as he had seen too many of his neighbours, mostly Protestant, murdered by the IRA. He saw myriad, far too many from the nationalist community murdered by loyalist terror gangs too, often in collusion with the state. He made it a point of principle to go to the funerals of terror victims in his constituency even if he was not always welcomed by those who, wrongly, saw him as a representative of violent republicanism. In another statement of personal courage and awareness, he repeatedly refused personal police protection as he feared any attack on him would also endanger, if not cost, the lives of his escort.
At first a reluctant politician, he was driven to act by institutionalised bigotry which he described in his autobiography, — A Shared Home Place, in terms that challenge those who scoff at politics. That powerful book gave an indication of why he was a prizewinning playwright. It left no room for doubt. Neither did his famous phrase describing the Good Friday Agreement: “Sunningdale for slow learners.” He did not need to spend three decades or more knee-capping, car bombing, kidnapping, or murdering to understand that nothing ends until the talks begin. It is a sadness that those talks ended with the marginalisation of moderation, a legacy of which was Stormont’s recent three-year hiatus.
Tens of thousands of words have been, and will be, written in deserved tribute to Mallon but maybe there is something more concrete we can do. Putting A Shared Home Place onthe secondary school curriculum would teach, in the most graphic way, the pointlessness of hate and violence. It would be a fitting celebration of life dedicated to, after centuries of conflict, eradicating those toxins from Irish life.