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Review of Seamus Mallon’s ‘Shared Home Place’ (Lilliput, 2019; with Andy Pollak).

A memoir with thin narrative and little polemic nevertheless reveals  a steely and moral man with a belief in a consensual United Ireland.

Reviewed By Kevin Kiely.

Most people reading this will know who they consider the heroic protagonists of Northern Ireland’s peace process.  

Few will acknowledge the role of David Trimble or enthuse about the role of Bertie Ahern or Albert Reynolds; some will hail Clinton or Blair, some Adams, fewer David Ervine; least controversially most will applaud John Hume. 

They will accept too the narrative that he is now mute, that his party is moribund and that he had a worthy, flintier deputy, Seamus Mallon (born 1936), the man who could “make ‘good morning’ sound like a threat”. 

Mallon’s autobiography does nothing to challenge this narrative.  This is partly because the book is essentially a memoir and lacks a hard-core historical backdrop.  He and co-writer AndyPollak also seem disengaged with the present and with the future about which their predictions are half-baked. 

This is a haunted retrospective on ‘a peace process’ rather than ‘the peace process’ – there’s a self-indulgent primary focus on what might have been. Less than on what might be.

Mallon’s father, and mother, Jane, formerly O’Flaherty of Castlefinn (Donegal) provided an unusually stable homelife for young Seamus and his four sisters. 

Inheriting the father’s “fairness, generosity and willingness to help others” he became a secondary school teacher beginning in St Joseph’s Newry having met his future wife Gertrude “when we were both around fifteen”. He played Gaelic football for Armagh.  He got involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and was elected to the first power-sharing executive in 1973.

His home place is Markethill, “a 90% unionist village” in the murder triangle of South Armagh where “per head of the population more people were killed…than any other county in the North”. His neighbours included the paramilitary Glenanne gang. Three miles from his front door openly lived “UVF killer, Robin Jackson, a former UDR man responsible for more than fifty murders”. 

Mallon acknowledges the systematic collusion of loyalists including the RUC with paramilitaries and he despairs about the demise of the Historical Enquiries Team. 

Mallon’s pacifism was tested over decades in the cauldron of arson attacks, death threats, defamation, and Community-polarisation and endless sectarian intimidation: “a man appeared and marched around the house playing the flute”. He came through the other end untoxic and even gamely manifests a contrived politeness on ‘Ulster-British culture’: “I rather like pipe bands; it’s the lashing of the warlike Lambeg drum I object to”.

Mallon offers no polemical exegesis but does believe in a “shared homeplace”.

Surrounded by  extremism Mallon always maintained  his pacifism: “We can build a shared centre where most people, unionist and nationalist, can feel comfortable and secure and at home…”.

But surely this theory rests on moderate unionism undergoing “conversion”, presumably to a quasi-Alliance politics supporting human rights and the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). 

He goes on: “We can then work towards the unification of the people of Ireland, rather than the forced marriage of territorial unity”.  His vague ultimate is: “I see Britain eventually leaving Northern Ireland”. Nevertheless his republicanism is more progressive than ‘Humespeak’ on Irish unity: he does see it as the “only long-term solution”. 

The 1974 Sunningdale clauses on “Irish unity in stages” and an “orderly way”. He was of course the progenitor of the theory that the GFA was Sunningdale for slow learners.

He chimes with the GFA that a united Ireland should depend on the consent of the majority of people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions: on “parallel consent”. He recognises the decline of the staunch unionist population to “the minority” but – unlike Sinn Féin – is suspicious of any ‘”narrow vote for unity” on a “50 per cent plus one” basis, “assuming the unionists do not boycott such a Border Poll”.

‘there’s a self-indulgent primary focus on what might have been. Less than on what might be’

The narrative in this book is thin. The chapter on the peace process and GFA is surprisingly lacklustre. His anecdotes are well known and long-rehearsed as when Mallon complained about Sinn Féin to Blair, who replied;: “The trouble with you fellows, Seamus, is that you have no guns”. 

His exhaustion is apparent everywhere: the eventual agreements were  “the last chance of peace for a generation”. 

Mallon’s portrait of David Trimble centres on a rehashing of the details of his defenestration by siege-Unionists Donaldson, Foster and others. On Sinn Féin he quotes journalist Ed Moloney: “Sinn Féin had no interest in reaching agreement with David Trimble on decommissioning and devolution”. Mallon inculpates Adams and McGuinness in “the murderous nonsense of violent republicanism”.  But admits that by 2001 the SDLP “were completely eclipsed as the two governments worked on unionists and republicans”. 

Exhaustion and eclipse beleaguer the SDLP then and now.  But the embracing morality and steely decency of Seamus Mallon defy.