A Shared Home Place, by Seamus Mallon with Andy Pollak, Lilliput Press, 272 pp, €20, ISBN: 9781843517634
There is a dichotomy in this book. Its core consists of a personal and political memoir and covers Chapters 1 to 11. This is encased in an introduction by Andy Pollak and the final three chapters (12-15), which together make up a political pamphlet, largely concerned with future options. The reader will judge whether these sit comfortably together. This reviewer thinks not, on balance.
Mallon is not offering us a history of Northern Ireland in recent times. While his account is strictly true to the facts and broadly chronological what we get is an informed commentary on the period since 1968 from the standpoint of one of the central participants. Of profound value are the insights provided into the fundamental themes and issues of the past fifty years in the North. The voice is utterly authentic. It is grounded in the author’s scholarly understanding of the antiquity of the conflict and his intimate knowledge of its practical outworkings in his own time.
Seamus Mallon would not claim to be impartial. His core beliefs are honestly and clearly stated. He can, however, claim to be fair-minded, with a capacity and a willingness to go to great lengths to understand the cultural and political outlook of those who don’t agree with him. Nowhere is this more evident than in his relations with the Unionist people and with their political leaders. He has some very harsh things to say but he says them in ways that are entirely free from sectarian bigotry. He also demonstrates a degree of empathy and humanity rarely found in our political leaders.
The second key characteristic is signalled in the book’s title. Mallon has a profound sense of place. His understanding of Armagh in particular and of the North in general is comprehensive. Frequent references to the history of his locality go back as far as Plantation times. There is also depth – displayed not least in his references to his Protestant neighbours, their families, their lives and their fundamental beliefs. On several occasions he quotes Seamus Heaney to help understand a heartbreaking situation yet Mallon himself actually mirrors Heaney in the way his grounded understanding of the local illustrates universal values. These values are timeless and are rooted in his essential humanity. They emerge and take shape in the way he engages with the people of his own place in a time of trial and distress.
This is not a long book, being just short of 200 pages. It is commentary and reflection, thematic and personal. A review can sometimes be an alternative to reading a long and complex narrative – a summary or précis. That would not be appropriate in this case. A man, his times and his place emerge fully and authentically from his own reflections, from his own story told in direct simple prose. It just needs to be read. Those who have lived through the period in question will find numerous reminders of events half-forgotten, presented again in their various contexts of elation, horror, despair and hope. Those whose knowledge is more remote or cursory will acquire deeper understanding and be, like Coleridge’s wedding guest, “sadder but wiser” at the end.
A number of key themes emerge and recur throughout the narrative. They might be summarised as follows: the historical context; the unionist people and their leaders; constitutional progress; nationalism – peaceful means versus violence; policing and justice – terror, repression, collusion; Hume and Mallon – a difficult, complex relationship; Seamus Mallon – politician, philosopher, neighbour.
The opening paragraph of Chapter One locates the author firmly in his home place of Markethill, a place that was until the end of the sixteenth century part of Gaelic Ireland and ruled by the O’Neills. “To the North I look across the rich lands of mid and north Armagh, settled largely by English ‘planters’ in the 17th century.” In a few sentences the scene is set and the view proposed “that here … is the Northern Ireland problem in microcosm.” Since the Plantation, Armagh was “… a place where conflict was waiting to happen.” Mallon pulls no punches – “The Plantation of Ulster, the Penal Laws and, much later the Partition of Ireland, were based on the same flawed policy: to create a Protestant ascendancy in order to maintain Britain’s rule over Ireland.”
The first chapter is entitled “A Happy Upbringing in South Armagh” and that is what is described. The formative influences, both domestic and contextual, come across plainly and directly from anecdote and observation. The nature of rural Armagh society emerges without elaborate signposting or moralising judgement.
Markethill was a Protestant village with six Protestant places of worship. The Catholic Church and school were a mile outside the town. Relationships were good before the outbreak of the “Troubles”. The ancient differences were there, but they remained largely below the surface. Good neighbourliness prevailed, disturbed only at sensitive times such as the Orange parading season. This was important, as when terror and counter-terror came Mallon never lost his sympathy for and understanding of the Protestant community. Relations did indeed become fractured, but Mallon did not succumb to sectarianism. One chapter is entitled “On the brink of Civil War”. In the period from the early 1970s until the mid-1980s, per head of population more people were killed in Armagh than in any other county. Mallon captures it well. “This lovely county was cloaked in a permanent black pall of fear and deep suspicion.” The catalogue of murder is related meticulously and condemned without equivocation, whoever the perpetrator. It was easy and natural to have sympathy for victims on one’s own “side”. What might not always have been expected was Mallon’s empathy with Protestant victims. This is well-expressed in the story of the Protestant “Jack Adams” – “a farmer by day and a good and decent neighbour”. A part-time policeman, he was shot by the IRA as he ploughed his fields. His family had been farming there for four hundred years but “the warped ideology of violent republicanism denied him this birthright”.
Frankly, bluntly, but sensitively Mallon tells a story of horror piled on horror. Even at a remove of forty years it is hard to read his account of the murder of the Reavey brothers, the Kingsmill massacre and many more atrocities. Seamus Mallon made a promise to himself early on to visit the homes and attend the funerals of all the victims of political and sectarian violence in his constituency. Most of the time his presence was appreciated. Sometimes it was not. He understood and tells of these occasions without rancour.
From time to time Mallon comments on Unionist political leadership. He had a long-standing personal friendship with Ken Maginnis. He has generous words for Brian Faulkner and, surprisingly perhaps to some, for David Trimble. It is clear that he has little time for Ian Paisley – most evidently illustrated in his account of the slur cast under parliamentary privilege on Eugene Reavey whose three brothers had been murdered. In general, one gets the impression that he feels that the Unionist people were ill-served by their political leaders. However, his compassion and humanity are often shown, no more so than when he tells of the murder of Charlie Armstrong in 1983 – “a thoroughly decent man and a member of the UDR”. Armstrong was chairman of Armagh Council and Mallon had left a council meeting early on the evening of his killing.
Chapters 4, 6 and 8 are devoted to the attempts to arrive at an agreed constitutional settlement in the North. At the time of Sunningdale, Mallon was not the central player that he was to become for the Good Friday Agreement. Nevertheless, his observations are incisive, interesting and often amusing. He liked Gerry Fitt but “… he was not the party leader in intellectual terms”. John Hume was “essentially the leader”. Brian Faulkner “had a decent core”. Mallon’s elation at the Sunningdale Agreement and the formation of the NI Executive on January 1st, 1974 are contrasted with his despair at the executive’s downfall in May of that year. Any bitterness is reserved for Harold Wilson and his NI secretary, Merlyn Rees, with their supine reaction to the bullying tactics of the Loyalist Ulster Workers’ Council. He is blunt: “The use of the British army in 1974 was sectarian. The British government had no problem putting the army into Derry, West Belfast or South Armagh but they had big pangs of conscience about putting them into loyalist East Belfast … They were forewarned about UWC strikers taking over the power stations and could have put a static military presence there. They could have done more and done it earlier to keep the roads open.”
Mallon is equally scathing about the IRA. They understood politics better than the loyalists and knew what an extraordinary advance Sunningdale, power-sharing and the Council of Ireland represented for nationalists. Their continued and intensified use of violence put them in an “unholy alliance” with reactionary loyalism.
The period from May 1974 until the Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985 is described as the “dog days”. This was true both politically and personally for Mallon. Relying on his wife, Gertrude’s, income from teaching and trying to keep politics alive in an atmosphere of continued violence was a difficult station. Mallon ploughed through, establishing himself as the leading nationalist opinion former in the area of policing and justice. His dogged pursuit of fairness in the face of the suspect activities of a section of the police and UDR, the dubious role of the government and the secret services, and the attitude of a still largely Unionist judiciary earned him widespread respect as well as no little hostility. He watched with horror the Thatcher government’s handling of the 1980-81 hunger strikes but he does not flinch from pointing out that during those seven months there were sixty-nine other people killed –thirty-seven of them at the hands of the IRA.
In November 1981 the IRA assassinated the Unionist MP Rev Robert Bradford. At the same time Ian Paisley’s Third Force imported guns from South Africa. “The North was polarized as never before.” During this time the degree of security force collusion with the loyalist paramilitaries was becoming increasingly apparent. Mallon, by his own admission, was “… a constant critic of the UDR for its harassment of Catholics, but I also went to a lot of funerals of UDR men killed in Co Armagh”. Equally, he had many excellent relationships with RUC men. However, “Some men were joining the RUC in Co Armagh as a rite of passage into the UVF and UDA, and it was obvious to me that they had cover … at a very senior level.” This was Mallon’s problem. How could Catholics support a force which included such people? Again, he is forthright. He knew Armagh well. “I know there was a policeman involved in the murder of the Reavey brothers. I know it was policemen who shot up the Rock Bar; and Donnelly’s pub in Silverbridge; and the Step Inn in Keady.”
The last paragraph is Chapter 5 bears quoting in detail: “It seemed to us in the SDLP that the government was seeking to defeat terrorism while acting as terrorists. The prime examples were the Glenanne gang near Markethill and the shoot-to-kill policy. Ordinary people … were seeing the police bending the law, breaking the law and … being involved in gangs murdering their neighbours. Was it right for the RUC to shoot to kill suspected terrorists because of what they had allegedly done in the past, even when they were unarmed ? … It was indefensible morally …”
Chapter 5, “A Loyalist Murder Gang near Markethill”, is the most chilling and shocking chapter in the book. The activities of the Glenanne gang of paramilitaries, RUC and UDR men represented to Mallon “… some kind of gruesome nadir in the activities of the security forces”. For a time in the ’70s this gang seemed to kill and bomb at will and may have been responsible for up to 120 deaths. Mallon’s controlled anger is palpable as he describes in forensic detail the collusion, cover-up, judicial insensitivity and the thirty-year delay in investigating all of this. He quotes the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, Sir Robert Lowry, who imposed lenient sentences on four RUC men convicted of offences at the Rock Bar: “It can be said of each of the accused that he has done the state some service.”
As Mallon asks, “It is any wonder that Nationalist confidence in the police and judiciary was all but destroyed?” For his role in challenging all of this he was reviled by some Unionists. Rev Willie McCrea of the DUP once declared that he was OC of the South Armagh Provisional IRA. It is easy to forget at a remove of thirty years the actual physical danger in which he and his family were placed. Of course he readily acknowledged the rejection of such attitudes by the great majority of his Protestant neighbours. He also relates how he listened at the funeral of a policeman in Markethill while the clergyman spoke “… in a voice full of anguish that laid bare the sheer heartbreak of ordinary Unionists about the killing of their loved ones in the security forces”. The chapter ends with a quotation from Seamus Heaney in a poem about the murder of his cousin. Mallon reflects on “… too many places violated in my parish, my county, my country, violated by murder and massacre, places I used to know and love as I passed by them on my boyhood bicycle.”
Chapters 6, 7 and 8 form the political core of the book, covering the New Ireland Forum, the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement. Mallon alludes to his relationships with Haughey and FitzGerald, which were at times quite prickly – particularly with the latter. Tensions with John Hume are increasingly apparent during this fifteen-year period. Mallon felt in 1984 that the SDLP were “… in danger of losing our core belief in unity”. He refers, not in an approving way, to “a form of ‘Humespeak”. He was excluded from discussions on the Anglo-Irish Agreement: “Hume told me nothing.” Nevertheless, he is generous in its praise. It “… proved to be a real milestone and the beginning of new hope for Nationalists”. Grievances against the security forces began to be taken seriously and Nationalists began to trust the Irish government.
Mallon entered the House of Commons at a good time in January 1986. The House had voted by 473 to 47 in favour of the Anglo-Irish Agreement – in itself a message to Unionists. He saw himself as being “in the Parnellite tradition”. He quoted Spinoza in his maiden speech. Peace was “… not an absence of war, but a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition of benevolence, confidence and justice”. During the chapter entitled “An Irish Nationalist in the House of Commons” he comments at some length on the Unionist mindset and on their political leadership. He is unimpressed by the latter and somewhat bewildered by the former. He liked Westminster without feeling any sense of awe or inferiority. He was frustrated by the condescending attitude expressed in comments such as “… those impossible people: two tribes beating each other up”. To Mallon the situation was of Westminster’s creation and resulted from its settled policy from the seventeenth century until the 1970s. For many British politicians, Northern Ireland was just “another troublesome colony”. An honourable exception was NI secretary Peter Brooke, who was instrumental in the Downing Street Declaration that Britain had no “selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland – a “game changer” in Mallon’s view.
The Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement chapter places Mallon most emphatically at the centre of events. It opens with a generous and unreserved tribute to John Hume. “I would rank him among the great leaders of Irish constitutional Nationalism, men like Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell.” However, he does confront and address their differences – particularly Hume’s reluctance, as he saw it, to bring others in the SDLP into his confidence. Mallon “did worry about the Hume-Adams talks” and was concerned that democracy was being bypassed. He and Eddie McGrady believed that Hume was being used by the IRA and Sinn Féin.
Regarding the approach to the Republicans, Mallon remains convinced that the governments (and by implication Hume) could and should have done things differently. His reasoning is here to be evaluated. He credits Blair with getting the whole process moving. The DUP walkout was “the most helpful thing they could have done”. There was a great deal of UUP-SDLP interaction, on which Mallon led since by now Hume was ill. He is generous to Trimble. If John Hume or he had faced the same degree of opposition in their own party, they wouldn’t have got to the negotiating table. He hails the Agreement as “… the final end of the Unionist veto on progress involving an Irish Dimension …” Through the reform of the police and courts which followed, the fifty-year domination of those institutions by the Unionist elite was ended. Time and again Mallon displays an ability not just to narrate the course of events but to identify their significance.
The chapter “In Government with David Trimble” has a plangent tone. Both men knew that the extreme parties – DUP and SF – were out to get them and both came to realise that the two governments were ready to accommodate their respective eclipsings. The electorate knew what was going on and moved accordingly. Mallon cites some very interesting evidence in support of this view. The reader can judge. Mallon is in no doubt.
Chapter 10 is entitled “Policing and Justice in a Divided Society”. The practical, on-the-ground politician is shown here to be a political philosopher of some authority on a subject he made his own. At the core is Mallon’s conviction that policing could not be solved in isolation from the political process. He arrived at this conclusion after careful study of history, society and politics on the island. Not everyone in the SDLP agreed (some were ready to accept cosmetic changes) and many Unionists vehemently disagreed. The Patten Commission vindicated his approach. This should be seen as one of his greatest triumphs – the delivery of the PSNI, which has succeeded in gaining the confidence of both communities. There is an entertaining account of the SDLP’s epic guerrilla war at Westminster against Peter Mandelson’s attempts to water down Patten. Hume, Mallon and Eddie McGrady succeeded in frustrating Mandelson ‑ “an enormously arrogant man” ‑ with over a hundred amendments to the secretary of state’s legislation.
Chapter 11 is entitled “My Catholicism”. The philosopher-politician offers the reader an insight into the core of his ethical being. He is undogmatic, frank and strangely innocent. What is most striking is how uplifting he found the examples of Christian goodness “… in the face of evil”. The Reavey family stand out. Three sons were murdered by the Glenanne gang. For twenty years the surviving brother, Eugene, was harassed by the security forces and slandered by police, UDR and politicians. He was eventually fully vindicated by the Historical Enquiries Team. In 1999 Ian Paisley used parliamentary privilege to accuse Eugene Reavey of being involved in the Kingsmill massacre. Despite Mallon’s angry demands he never apologised. Mallon eviscerates Paisley (lionised by many for his late conversion to cross-community government). “On the one side there was the hate-mongering politician and preacher, using parliamentary immunity to make an utterly unsubstantiated, life-threatening and character-destroying accusation … and then refusing to withdraw when the evidence of his innocence was produced. On the other is that deeply wronged man, who now devotes much of his time to actively working for peace and reconciliation …” On the same page Mallon balances this with an “… example of Christian goodness” in the response of the congregation to the INLA massacre at Darkley Gospel Hall. Mallon went to the house of one victim where he was invited by their pastor, Bob Bain to say a prayer. He was with true Christians and was clearly moved.
The “Banquo’s Ghost” in Mallon’s memoir is Sinn Féin/IRA. Mallon does not obsess about the eclipse of the SDLP. He forthrightly condemns the violent campaign as both morally wrong and politically counter-productive. It is hard to escape the conclusion that, in his opinion, Hume, Ahern, Blair and their civil servants were wrong in not “calling their bluff” early on regarding decommissioning. Interestingly, there are no stories of personal friendship with Sinn Féin leaders comparable to those with Unionists at local council level, Stormont and Westminster. Res ipsa loquitur.
The “Memoir” part of the book shines a valuable light on the politics and society of the author’s time. Much of this will be of value to historians. The person who emerges is authentic, honest and serious and seems to be saying to the reader: “This is how I saw it, make up your own mind.” Alongside the political, we learn of a man with broad interests, well-read, a man of faith, of commitment to family and to his own place and people.
In the chapters which I describe as a political pamphlet he is on different ground. The retired politician attempts to apply the lessons of his life to the needs of the future – a worthy endeavour but surely a different book. Nevertheless, there is an abundance of sharp observation and incisive political quotes. Freed from telling his own story he ranges widely. If the historian will benefit from the memoir, the political scientist will probably find this part more productive. The new idea which Mallon offers is the principle regarding “Parallel Consent” –that is that the 50 per cent plus one threshold for Irish unity should give way to a slightly amorphous idea of consent in both communities –that is some form of majority Unionist buy-in. If Homer nods, this is where he does it. As ever, let the reader be the judge.
The section does contain a wealth of valuable quotations and reflections. There is a short history of the Unionist Veto, a convincing apologia for the contribution of the SDLP and a perceptive contrast between the capacities of the Irish government and civil service today and those of the period 1970-2000. (Not favourable to the current crop.) The nationalist hegemon Sinn Féin suffers a subtle and telling put-down in a quote from Brian Barrington (his former special adviser) – “… promises from Sinn Fein have no value for Unionists. Sinn Fein may see this as unfair but it is the toxic legacy of the armed struggle.”
The final chapter is called “Is Ireland Ready for Reunification?” This is packed with wisdom and realism, generosity of spirit and impeccable analysis. It is possible to disagree with the Parallel Consent idea and yet to find much here to edify and to inspire. Media comment at the time of publication was rather narrowly focused. The book finishes in a manner befitting its scholarly author. He quotes Heaney one last time: “The dreams of justice became subsumed into the callousness of reality and people settled into a quarter century of life waste and spirit waste …”
And finally from himself: “I experienced that ‘life waste and spirit waste’ particularly in the blood-stained 1970s and 80s. The dream of justice though has also led to very significant changes in Northern Ireland, and I am fortunate and honoured to be an active participant in some of these changes. As I prepare to take my leave of our shared home place, I find comfort in an old Greek proverb: ‘A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit.’”
Ian Doherty grew up in Derry in the 1950s and ’60s. He read history at Cambridge from 1971 to 1974 before taking up a career in the family business in Derry/Donegal. He was active in public life in Northern Ireland from 1974 to 2016. In retirement he is catching up on his reading, mostly in the fields of history and archaeology.