Former primary school principal turned politician Seamus Mallon was a key broker of peace in Northern Ireland and figurehead of the SDLP for decades.
Born in the staunchly unionist County Armagh village of Markethill, Mallon was a keen Gaelic footballer and amateur dramatist raised in a republican household. Politics found him, he wrote, when he witnessed blatant sectarianism, which drove him to join the civil rights movement and subsequently local politics. Mallon would later proudly oust from his seat the unionist politician who refused to house a family of one of his pupils because they were Catholics.
A founding member of the SDLP, Mallon’s career spanned roles in Westminster, the Northern Ireland Assembly and a short stint in the Republic’s Seanad. A key player in Northern Ireland’s peace process and the creation of the Good Friday Agreement, he remained a few steps removed from the praise often lavished on his colleague John Hume.
Mallon was consistently vocal in opposition to the use of violence and his condemnation of those involved in violence during the Troubles often put him at risk at a time when the murder of senior figures on both the nationalist and unionist sides was not uncommon. As a constitutional nationalist, his relationship with John Hume became strained when he learned that Hume had been secretly meeting with Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams.
Mallon was incensed by the actions of the IRA. “I am a republican and a nationalist but I daren’t say so publicly because everyone will take me for a Provo,” he once said.
He championed the Sunningdale Agreement and the potential of power-sharing, lamenting its failure and outlining his belief that the agreement could have saved a lot of lives. He would eventually describe the landmark Good Friday Agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners”.
Hume and Mallon sought to use their differences to the SDLP’s advantage. They operated in different spheres. Whereas Hume travelled abroad extensively, particularly to Brussels and America, Mallon positioned himself at the coalface. The two often disagreed on tone, with Mallon coining the term “Hume speak”, which he suggested was not always suitable on the ground level.
Mallon was close to Fianna Fáil and its leader Charlie Haughey, whereas Hume drifted to Garret FitzGerald. However, he was angered by all three men in the run up to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, claiming that Hume “told me nothing”.
Hume, along with David Trimble took most of the accolades for the Good Friday Agreement, including the Noble Peace Prize, however many recognise the extent of Mallon’s work in facilitating an agreement.
At his funeral, Archbishop Eamon Martin described him as a “shining example of someone who gives their life in a vocation of service”.
Described in the wake of his death as a peacemaker, statesman and an inspiration by numerous individuals, Mallon’s intellect, sternness and humour were valuable attributes in a time of fraught relationships both within and outside of his party.
Undoubtedly, his part in the Good Friday Agreement was his greatest contribution to politics in Northern Ireland but even after its signing, he continued to strive for better government and a better society, becoming Northern Ireland’s first deputy First Minister.
Men like Seamus Mallon don’t come along too often. We should be grateful for his work in our time and cherish his legacy and preserve his values.
— Pat Hume
Former Secretary of State to Northern Ireland John Reid once said of Mallon that he was the only politician he had ever met who could make ‘good morning’ sound like a threat.
In his determinedness, Mallon could be could also be contentious and at times difficult. Although his relationship with First Minister David Trimble is viewed in hindsight as a productive one, the two could not be described as harmonious.
Mallon’s principled stubbornness was undoubtedly a factor in the SDLP’s decision to match him in office with Trimble, rather than Hume, who was perhaps more compromising. Mallon exhibited such mettle in resigning from the post, even before the establishment of a power-sharing Executive in protest at the Ulster Unionist boycott over the progress of decommissioning.
Mallon would later be reinstated and he doggedly pursued reform of policing and was largely responsible for preventing attempts by Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson to water down proposals for policing reform. The Police (NI) Act of 2003 is viewed as one of Mallon’s greatest achievements.
However, he became vocally disillusioned by the rise of Sinn Féin on the groundwork laid by the SDLP and the instability of power sharing at that time.
Mallon held firm the belief that the British and Irish governments should have made IRA decommissioning a precondition for Sinn Féin’s participation in a power-sharing Executive and blamed the failure to achieve this on the SDLP and UUP’s electoral demise.
When Hume stood down as the party leader in 2001, Mallon, the party’s deputy leader for over 20 years, surprisingly, opted not to take up the post. In later years he would say that while John Hume was “no fool”, his interactions with Sinn Féin gave it vindication and that it had played Hume “like a 3lb trout”.
Prior to his death, Mallon described the absence of the political institutions at Stormont as “a total mess”, believing that the DUP and Sinn Féin had failed to even begin becoming the parties of reconciliation.
“You have a very sick society when the definition of culture on one side is the burning of bonfires and, on the other side, using the Irish language for what is a patently political reason,” he said.
In 2019, while restating his desire for Irish unity, Mallon argued for a parallel consent approach amidst increasing demands for a border poll. A 50 per cent plus one majority in a border referendum would not “give us the kind of agreed and peaceful Ireland we seek,” he said.
In a statement following his death, John and Pat Hume described Mallon as “a man of huge strength and courage, who stood with John for many years in the fight for justice, peace and reconciliation on this island.
“Men like Seamus Mallon don’t come along too often. We should be grateful for his work in our time and cherish his legacy and preserve his values by never giving up on standing up for what is right, standing tall against prejudice and injustice and standing for making Ireland a country of peace and partnership.”