William Crawley Interviews Seamus Mallon

William Crawley (WC) interviews Seamus Mallon (SM) of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Appreciation as ever to TPQ transcriber for serving this up.

BBC Radio Ulster
28 December 2015
(begins time stamp ~ 3:18)

WC: Welcome to Talkback! Over this Christmas Season we have been introducing you to some very special guests and finding out about their lives, their loves, their passions and their personal musical soundtrack. My guest today began his career as a primary school teacher and a headmaster before becoming involved in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960's. Then followed an increasingly public role in politics here with the SDLP which led him to the Assembly, to Westminster and to the Irish Senate.

After the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 he went on to serve along side David Trimble as Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister. And after forty years in the political limelight he retired from politics in 2005 though his very distinctive voice is still raised from time to time to comment on the state of politics here and on the progress of the peace process he helped to create. My guest today is Seamus Mallon. Seamus, welcome.

SM: Thank you, William.

WC: How does it feel listening to your entire life put into one short paragraph like that?

SM: It reminds just how many years I have on the clock. It reminds me of so many things. Being in this studio for starters - it's quite sometime since I've been in a sound studio. I used to be here every day, every morning almost - week on week. But it's nice to come back and say hello to people that I haven't seen for a while. Say hello to you and hopefully say hello to the people who might listen to this.

WC: Do you sometimes have to bite your tongue when you watch on television or listen on the radio to politics today playing out in Northern Ireland?

SM: No, I don't bite my tongue. Normally I'm usually looking at the news alone and I use some language which could only be described as 'choice'.

WC: Unparliamentary.

SM: Very unparliamentary, indeed. When I look at things that have to be done in this society which haven't even been touched – when I look at things in administrative terms – what's happening in health is appalling. In terms of services - a bin lorry was at my house this morning - one driver, one person. So the guy has to drive it and collect the bins as well - that shows you the cut backs. Then you have the educational system and I am reluctant to call it a system because nobody knows now what the policy is. What is the government's policy? What is the policy of the CCMS? (Council for Catholic Maintained Schools) Do they have a policy? And I know the community I live in the only policy can see or have seen over the years was this (inaudible) attempt to close everything small and to bottle people into larger schools.

WC: You don't sound like you're very impressed by the political leadership we have today.

SM: I know they have difficulties. I understand some of those difficulties. I had them myself so I understand. But what worries me most is that the two major parties don't seem in their hearts to believe in the whole thesis of the Good Friday Agreement. And that thesis is a very simple one: Is to create within The North of Ireland a system whereby people can be at peace with themselves, with one another, where they can have a decent quality of life, where we can pursue economic development, where we don't have people relying on the dole, where we are able to create the type of indigenous jobs that small areas can do if they're helped to do it. That's not happening. What has been done in terms of the business of the Good Friday Agreement as I would call it and that is: How do we get into peoples' hearts and souls? How do we get people who have been fearful of other people - who have lived in prejudice in many ways, how do we get those people to see there's a different world outside and that there is a different world that they're a part of? And I think if that message were being led politically then I think things would be in a better state because it would give the political process confidence to do the things that they should be doing and do them well.

WC: I'm looking forward to talking to you a lot more in this hour about your feelings, about Northern Ireland but also about the journey you have been on, Seamus, throughout your entire adult life into politics but before we do that - what's your first choice of music?

SM: It's a song called Carraigdonnn – it's being sung by Mary O'Hara – a beautiful harpist as well. The reason I've chosen that is my father sang that song and he didn't usually sing but if there was say a Christmas at home, something like that, he would and he sang it very well. So every time I hear it, which is not very often now, I think of him and the joy he got out of that piece of music. (song plays)

WC: Carraigdonnn sung by Mary O'Hara, the choice of my guest today, Seamus Mallon. You've just really given us a jeremiah against the political leadership of Northern Ireland today and the failings in terms of the real-life experience of most people - the failings of our political establishment to 'get it' and to deal with it. Given all of that do you think the peace process has been a success? Or is it failing, too?

SM: I think and have thought for some time that the term 'peace process' itself is something of a misnomer. Peace is something which shouldn't be bargained with, that shouldn't be used as a political weapon, or shouldn't be used in a political process. It had to be used, I accept that, to ensure that the peace we have was established. But, there's a political process as well. And you know, political well-being and being able to have a decent standard of life and a deeper quality of life - that is part of the creation of peace. Peace, not just as an absence of war but as, I think it was Spinoza who put it, an attitude of mind - a disposition towards benevolence, confidence and justice.

Now let us ask ourselves: Is the present Executive showing any benevolence except to their own supporters and those who vote for them? Confidence? Have they had the confidence to go out on the limb that they should have gone out on to bring the people in Northern Ireland together with them in the political process? And the justice? Which must surely underlie everything to ensure that people have equality - that you have, as in any society, elderly people and young people, and that both are looked after in a very positive way. Are we doing those things? I would suggest that there has been more posturing than anything else in this. But simply on this I'll ask a question: What legislation has it completed in the number of years that it is there? I don't know and I'm quite sure very few people know. But maybe sometime they would tell us. Or sometime we could benefit from the legislation...

WC: ...And do you say that about all the political parties or just the two big ones?

SM: You can't put all the political parties into that because it is a two-party show. In the last discussion, talks – whatever you like to call them – our party wasn't there, the Ulster Unionist Party wasn't there, the Alliance Party wasn't there, the Green Party weren't there and yet, they were handed a piece of paper and asked to adopt it and support it that evening. Now, once you start treating political parties like that in a context of the Good Friday Agreement, which was built on inclusion, and God knows the hours and hours and weeks that we spent ensuring inclusion - but for those people who benefited from the inclusion now excluding the other political parties is dicing with danger for this reason: they are abusing the political process. Political process is something very, very valuable in society.

WC: But they got more votes than anybody else.

SM: Yes, and that is a question that has to be looked at. You know, is there not something strange about this fact: that the two parties, the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, who worked for forty odd years for peace, who kept the political process alive when others were trying to kill it dead, is it a strange way of creating peace when you try to wipe out the political parties that have worked for peace? And giving a mandate to the biggest bully on each side. What does that tell us?

WC: Isn't that what all political parties do? They try to outdo their opponents, their competitors? They get more votes. They knock them out of the frame?

SM: Oh, yes, of course. Yes. I'm not complaining about that. You take the decision of the electorate – that's it. But, one has still the right to see how that can be improved. Are they so touchy now that they can't take any criticism? Or are they going to be idolised again in a superficial way as they have been in the past? Instead of saying, and the electorate saying to them: Look here – we want leadership here.

WC: Have you any regrets about the risks that you and your generation took within the SDLP and beyond it, to bring Sinn Féin into the political process?

SM: No regrets whatsoever, obviously, about the attempt to create peace. But you know, I'll put it this way: we were negotiating, all the parties, for two years prior to the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Féin had done its negotiations before the negotiations even started. They had negotiated with the Irish government, and with the British government and with the American government. And they had their understandings on the release of prisoners, on the factors that they wanted. In other words they had almost written the script.

WC: You're not saying it was a stitch-up are you?

SM: Well “stitch-up” is a word that can be used in a very loose way. Let's say it was not the furthest thing from the minds of the governments that, in effect, the two greatest set of bullies would be best suitable to govern the people of The North of Ireland. I don't accept that. But I think that when you talk about it, loosely about it, that's what underlay. I can tell you David Trimble and myself, when he was First and I was Deputy First Minister, trying to set up an Assembly, trying to decide and create it, trying to deal with policing, trying to deal with Drumcree which was happening outside and you know, right down to the Omagh bomb we were looking everyday at beautiful photographs in various newspapers of the leaders of Sinn Féin sitting in Downing Street. Indeed, I asked Tony Blair once: Were they on the electoral register in Downing Street? He didn't appreciate the humour of it but I did. We're looking at that - shots of them going in and out of government buildings in The South - and having been given a certain validity by the fact that we did our best to get peace. That rubbed off, I've no doubt, that the validity – in many ways it validated their position that in effect they were seen negotiating with us - and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense - and in effect the way in which they shamefacedly used that. I mean they used John, John Hume, like you'd play a three pound trout, and he gave them the thing that they were looking for – and that was a respectable image in the United States.

WC: They used him?

SM: Oh, yeah. I think so. Nothing new. I've said this – I've said it to John - said it within the party. Because, and here I go back to where I think I started...

WC: ...Do you mean they played him like a fool?

SM: No, no. He is no fool. Whatever else John is he is no fool. But I think he was so immersed in the whole business of getting peace that he didn't or couldn't come to grips with the fact that his presence with them gave them, especially in the United States and in Ireland, a status that almost bordered on validating their actions over the past thirty years.

WC: That's a serious statement.

SM: It's a very serious statement. It's one I think of very often especially when I can't sleep at night. When you ask yourself: what could we have done then to prevent that? I think there were things that could have been done and the one very fundamental one is that two sovereign governments, the Irish government and the British government, have a sovereign right to protect the people in their jurisdictions. A sovereign duty! And with that would go the sovereign right to take illegal arms. Yet decommissioning was made a political point and a bargaining point by Sinn Féin and they did it very, very cleverly because it kept the governments running to their door and better still for them - running to the governments' doors. And it kept them way beyond the time that it should have taken. I believe it could have been done before because as a sovereign government when and how can you expect that the holding of illegal arms, which had killed people, how can you come to terms with the fact that holding illegal arms and getting rid of those illegal arms is a voluntary act?

WC: You'd have just taken them – gone after them?

SM: I would expect any sovereign government to say to them: Look. Here we go. We want you in – of course we want you in. We'll give you every help to get over the stepping stones but...

WC: ...That's a precondition.

SM: ...that should be done. Now, the result of not doing that actually destroyed, almost destroyed, the Ulster Unionist Party who'd worked hard for God knows how many years to keep politics alive. It severely damaged our party, the SDLP, and in effect it almost gave a green light to people: These boys aren't too bad at all. They'll be alright to vote for.

WC: Well, this is fascinating. I want to talk to you more about the SDLP and its future after some of those decisions you've just described. But let's find out what your second choice of music is.

SM: My second choice in some ways ties in with what we've been talking about: Seán Ó Riada's Mise Éire - Symphony if you'd like to call it that. A marvelous piece of music coming from the heart as it were of Irish people right throughout the world. It is based on the type of imagery that there actually is in Mary O'Hara song: going from the dark into the spring and light. It's an inspiring piece of music. (song plays)

WC: Seán Ó Riada's Mise Éire - the choice of my guest today, Seamus Mallon, and we've been talking in very direct terms so far about the peace process – how it came about – the sacrifices, the risks that were taken by other parties to bring Sinn Féin into the process, and particularly by yourself and John Hume and the SDLP. Was that sacrifice worth it for your party?

SM: Not for our party.

WC: Wasn't worth it?

SM: For the people of The North of Ireland in terms of peace – it is. You save one life - you've done something.

WC: But how badly damaged has the SDLP been as a consequence of those decisions?

SM: Well, I don't want to go into figures but we still have three MPs at Westminster and indeed they are more vocal than say the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) MPs who all seem to have taken a vow of silence over this past year or so. It is impossible to deal with the paradox, because it is a paradox, people yearning for peace in The North of Ireland. Unionists people who've had people killed. People in the Nationalist/Republican community who had suffered at the hands of all types of misdemeanors and killed - that in effect those people sought their electoral refuge in the people who were doing exactly that – who were stirring up problems and hatred in the community on the one hand and a war of attrition on the other. Now, that is not a question that can be answered by the Ulster Unionist Party although I've sat with some of them into long nights discussing it. Nor is it something that is the responsibility of the SDLP. Yes, Sinn Féin are very well organised. Yes, they have a lot of money – huge amounts of money. They have all these things which leads to the type of politics they have and that is almost a military operation.

WC: Almost. Let's say almost.

SM: Almost. But the key question here is: How can people who have suffered so much on the Unionist side, on the Nationalist side over so long – how can then when we get a breath of air into the political process and the hope of a new way of life they opt for the people who were killing and the people who were involved? You know, the ugly face of naked sectarianism. That's the mystery and that's the complexity of it.

WC: What isn't a mystery is that Sinn Féin has taken the place of the SDLP as the largest Nationalist party to the extent that some people now wonder: what is the point of the SDLP? What is the difference in Nationalist political terms?

SM: I would have thought people would recognise that there are people in politics who have waged war, who have killed people - Jean McConville - young Gillespie in Derry used to blow up six soldiers - and I could go on ad infinitum about that. People know that, right? And only people themselves can decide why, in effect, they have voted for that type of regime. Your question, I think was...

WC: What's the difference?

SM: What's the difference?

WC: And what's the difference for a seventeen or eighteen year old voter approaching the next opportunity ...

SM: ... I have to reinforce – there's the difference. If you do that - you kill people and you tell lies to people on a daily basis - is that the type of attitude that you'd like to support at the ballot box?

WC: The war is over.

SM: Yes – but you're missing – and we tend to miss this point: If you have wars without proper planning – what happened in Iraq – not on the same scale, but when it was bombed the governments, the British government and the Americans, had no idea what they were going to do. Here you had an organisation and it had one objective over thirty-odd years and that was: Brits Out! And every year you would see on the gable walls of houses: 1973 – The Year of Victory. Next year you're driving somewhere else and you'd see: 1974 – The Year of Victory. Their objective failed. And I think it did more than that. What is has done is it has tarnished the very name of Republicanism in such a way that Republicanism, as a valid political position, has been distorted by them. And despite that this type of Republicanism gets a mandate. I think if you look at, and I go back to...

WC: ...But Seamus, isn't this really politically naive on your part? When you were involved in those days in bringing Sinn Féin into a political process what did you think would happen? Did you think they would never be voted for?

SM: No, no I didn't think that at all.

WC: Did you imagine that they might actually rise to become a more powerful political force than your own party?

SM: Yes.

WC: You did think that?

SM: Yes, but how could we have left any political party out? Because either you have the type of mechanism, which is not a very foolproof mechanism in terms of the D'Hondt system – either you have that or you have...

WC: ...Majority rule – something like that.

SM: You have what even the TUV were asking – are asking for: the type of voluntary coalition that they talk about. What that means, of course is: The major unionist party says: We'll have them, or them or them but we're not going to have that or that or that. How long do you think that would last? And there's the rub.

WC: How do you feel when you see Martin McGuinness standing in the role that you formerly played as First Deputy Minister?

SM: He's a very efficient manipulator of opinion; he does his media stuff very well. He left the educational system hanging in mid-air by his actions when he was the Minister of Education. I agree with doing away with the eleven plus – I agree with selection at eleven is not a viable position.

But you don't start wars and then all of a suddenly be a peacemaker without cynics like me saying: Here's what you did, Martin, own up to it. And in his terms I think he tries to tell the truth. Now I would find it impossible for me, as a person, to vote for some on the basis of crimes committed, on the basis of lies told, on the basis of black economies created within every constituency in The North of Ireland. And I could go on for quite some time. I don't regard that as a valid, a strong reason, for casting my vote in any direction. I would look for a little bit of integrity. I'd look for some of the human strengths that people should bring to politics. I wouldn't if I had voted for them. I would cringe as I do every time I hear a lie being told in such a way that they expected to be believed.

WC: Your next choice of music?

SM: Next choice is Lara's Theme song from Dr. Zhivago. The reason for that is my daughter was having a baby and I suppose like all babies they were in a great discussion about what it would be called. I had this piece of music – I've loved it from the first time I heard it. It is a haunting strain just as the other two pieces of music have a haunting strain and I said: Call her Lara - which they did. I think it's a lovely name and I like to listen to this piece of music as often as I can. (song plays)

WC: Lara's Theme from Dr. Zhivago - the choice of Seamus Mallon. You supported Colum Eastwood for the leadership of the SDLP against the sitting leader, Alasdair McDonnell. Did that take quite a bit of courage on your part or were you ready to do that for quite a while?

SM: I don't know what it took but I can tell you the basis on which I did it. I had been watching and listening about Colum for some time. Eventually, slowly, I got to know him. I recognised that he has a very good head on his shoulders. There's a kindness about him. He's not going to be flustered by anybody. And he has I think the type of vision that could, down the line, do two things: It could maybe stir the political process into its quest for what the Good Friday Agreement was set up to do – quality of life, peace, no fear of violence, the best education possible for children, all of those things ...

WC: ...Do you think Alasdair McDonnell was taking the party in the wrong direction?

SM: No. Alasdair did a lot of very substantial work in terms of organisation and other factors within the party. But then I think in every political career there comes a point where it's time to go. And when I looked at Colm I said: Right. I want a young person. I want a person with courage – and he has that. And the ability to deal with these things. Now maybe I'm wrong but I'd take a hefty bet that in five years time he will have proved himself a very adroit leader and that is not in any way criticising Alasdair.

WC: You must have gotten off his Christmas card list.

SM: Well I'm on very few Christmas card lists but I got over the pain of that very quickly.

WC: Do you regret never becoming leader yourself?

SM: I do.

WC: Yeah?

SM: Yeah. Very often. I had a choice to make – my wife was ill. She had been in hospital that year for quite some time she had dementia and has it now. I knew from my political experience you can't do both. So I had to make my choice and I am confident I made the right choice. I'd have loved to lead the party. I'd have loved to been involved in the negotiations. I'd have loved all those things but life doesn't always give you the things that you most desire but the way in which we have been able to look after Gertrude at home is worth any political position.

WC: How's she doing now?

SM: Not very good. Difficult.

WC: And you've got some help?

SM: Oh, yes. I've got carers in and help and I think we do a good job. But I still would liked to have been but ... let's forget about that – water under the bridge.

WC: Your next track of music?

SM: The next track of music will come as no surprise to anybody who knows me. It's The Bard of Armagh – the remarkable story of a clergyman, still not sure about his denomination, who came from Cavan and is allegedly buried somewhere around Cookstown but however, Josef Locke is singing it. I met him a few times. Now he had a tremendous voice; he sang with great expression. But the song itself means something to me because The Bard of Armagh, the ecclesiastical centre, the place where Saint Patrick was - before Christianity came or before The Celts came - you've all the strands of it there in that song. (song plays)

WC: Josef Locke singing The Bard of Armagh. That brings back a lot of memories I'm sure.

SM: It does. I could have done without the little twirly bit at the end but as someone who was born and reared in Co. Armagh - still live there and always will - it does something for me that song and it takes it back way beyond the issues that we have had for this past few centuries.

WC: Whatever The Troubles were about, and many people disagree about what to call The Troubles and what they were about, we talked a lot during those decades about the constitutional question – the united Ireland question. We don't talk much about that question today, interestingly enough. Is that question now parked for a generation or two?

SM: I don't think so. I don't think something of that nature could be parked – you're talking about a united Ireland. My first question always is: What do you mean by a united Ireland? Is it a thirty-two county socialist republic as many shades of Republicanism would seem to want? If it is, the people of Ireland don't want that. That's a fact. Is it the thirty-two county parliamentary state that many people would imagine it to be? I don't think it's going to be going down those roads.

WC: Or a federalised Ireland.

SM: Oh, I'll come to that, I'll come to that. The reality is that one of the successful things in the Good Friday Agreement was the constitutional change in relation to Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution. That was crucially important because it gave, for the first time, the Unionist community a sense of stability - assurances in an internationally binding agreement by a sovereign government that they will not be forced anywhere by violence. Now, I think the Unionist community are beginning to realise just how good the Good Friday Agreement has been for them. Now that is something which has been of enormous benefit and actually in many ways you can see it in the step of some of the Unionist politicians. Now they have the confidence to go ahead and do things - they walk differently at times - now if they all get to work together with the other parties – we can go places. The constitutional element of it, in my view, will be a form of federalism. You talk about federalism as if they were all the same type of things. American federalism isn't the same as Swiss federalism and ...

WC: ...And Britain's becoming increasingly federal, isn't it?

SM: ...It is becoming very federal and you can see change there which would effect change here as well. But the important thing is that realisation: that never again are people on the Nationalist side of the community in Ireland going to take up guns to force anybody, the Unionist people, into something that constitutionally they can't live with.

WC: Your final choice of music?

SM: Oh, it's one that I've always loved. Patrick Kavanagh wrote it as a poem and Luke Kelly sang it. Now there were many renderings of it but I think Luke Kelly's is the better one to end on.

WC: Raglan Road. (song plays)

WC: That is Luke Kelly and The Dubliners with Raglan Road. Seamus, as we approach the new year, what are you most hoping for - for yourself or for the society in the year to come?

SM: For the society I would dearly love to see the First and Deputy First Ministers, and the other ministers, the Executive - all-inclusive Executive as a whole - leading this community in the terms of what is required: lasting peace. I would say to them stop putting your fingers into other peoples' eyes every chance you get – you don't have to win every little petty argument. Let's focus on getting people here: To be at peace with themselves and their neighbours and with their futures because we always
look at the past – we're a great people for memorials. I suggest that we should start to live and think of ourselves as good ancestors. Ancestors who will leave to our generations to come something worthwhile - not a niggling little place like Stormont is now. 

WC: Seamus, thank you very much.

  • Well, that was a controversial interview and after the programme we put Seamus Mallon's criticisms of Sinn Féin to the party. They said that in spite of the naysayers, who included Seamus Mallon and much of the Irish establishment, John Hume, Gerry Adams and others brought about the Irish peace process and an end to the conflict. The party says Hume-Adams was the catalyst for the agreement and underpinned both the peace and political processes. Sinn Féin also claim that Seamus Mallon and David Trimble didn't speak to each other while in office and that the political institutions collapsed repeatedly on their watch.
(ends time stamp ~ 59:47)

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting and at times revealing exchange which nevertheless left me feeling that Seamus Mallon doesn't really explain how else it was going to end up other than the daddy on each block divvying up the booty between them. That really produced parsimonious power splitting rather than generous power sharing.

    I don't think the SDLP ever regained the gravitas it lost when he stepped down from Deputy Leader.

    Sad about his wife's condition.