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Kevin Cullen

Seamus Mallon, a champion of the Irish peace process, lived as a Catholic and spoke ‘like a Prod’

Seamus Mallon
Seamus MallonADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images/File 1999

Years ago, as the North of Ireland staggered toward peace talks, some dissident republicans tried to thwart political progress by placing a bomb outside the police station in Markethill, a predominantly Protestant village in South Armagh.

Long after the bomb exploded, a cop waved me over and when I said I had an appointment with someone in town, he smirked and said, “Good luck, boy,” pointing to where I should park on the shoulder.

I walked to the cordon the police had set up outside the town center and the guy I was supposed to meet, Seamus Mallon, sauntered over.

Seamus shook my hand, wordlessly, then shook his head.

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“What a load of shite,” he said, and while he was commenting on the chaos that yet another bomb in his town had caused, or maybe the composition of the bomb itself, he might as well have been talking about the general state of politics in Northern Ireland at the time. He spent his life making bombs like that irrelevant.

Seamus Mallon, who died Friday at the age of 83, was a politician and statesman little known outside Ireland and the United Kingdom, where he toiled often in the shadows of bigger names. But he was an important figure in the political and cultural process that ended the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

While extremists used inflammatory rhetoric, and dreamers spoke in altruistic if unrealistic terms, Seamus Mallon called it like it was.

John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic Labor Party of which Seamus was deputy, and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams get the lion’s share of credit for delivering Irish nationalists to make peace with British unionists in Northern Ireland, but Seamus deserves credit, too.

In the years before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement peace deal, unionist politicians used to privately complain that Hume and Adams spoke in vague, elastic language, so unionists were not exactly sure what was being said, what was being implied, and to what they were being asked to agree.

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Seamus, on the other hand, had little time for verbal chess. Though he was a Catholic nationalist and had seen and experienced bigotry and injustice, he, like Ulster Protestants, prided himself on being a straight talker.

One night, over too many drinks in the residents’ bar at the Europa Hotel in Belfast, an adviser to David Trimble, the unionist leader who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Hume, paid what he considered the ultimate compliment to Seamus: “He talks like a Prod.”

As his party’s chief negotiator in the marathon talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, Seamus’ ability to be seen by unionists as a straight talker was crucial. Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator, had a similar reputation with unionists, but carried the baggage of being a former IRA leader. Seamus became the deputy first minister, with Trimble as first minister, in the power-sharing executive that restored local government to Northern Ireland.

Seamus was fond of the poet Patrick Kavanagh, and like Kavanagh was mad for the ponies. Once over cups of tea, I confessed to Seamus I had zero interest in horse racing. Seamus said nothing but peered over his glasses, as if to say, “You don’t know what you’re missing, boy.”

One day, Matt Wallace, a great priest who worked in some of the toughest places in Belfast, met with Seamus at a community event in West Belfast, and they stood over to the side, engaged in deep, animated conversation. It appeared to be a very poignant moment between a priest who was on the front lines of the violence and a politician who was trying to end that violence.

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Father Matt told me later that they were actually talking about upcoming races in England because they were both betting on some of the same horses.

Seamus labored in the shadow of John Hume, who is rightly acknowledged as the chief architect of what became the peace process. In some ways, John was the Martin Luther King Jr. of Irish politics, framing nonviolent nationalism in eloquent, universal terms, while Seamus was the Ralph Abernathy, the guy on the sidelines who did much of the grunt work.

John was Harry Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the adventurous boy who went overseas and came back a hero with all sorts of medals, while Seamus was George Bailey, the loyal, less flashy brother who stayed home and took care of the mundane, day-to-day business, away from the limelight and the fanfare.

While John was celebrated in Washington and Boston and Brussels and Stockholm, Seamus drove home from Belfast to Markethill, through the Murder Triangle, where he was a moving target for loyalist paramilitary groups and rogue security force members.

Despite his vulnerability, Seamus routinely turned down offers of police protection. He was also unafraid to criticize the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the overwhelmingly Protestant police force that was too often heavyhanded in its treatment of Catholic nationalists.

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But whenever the IRA killed a police officer, and during the Troubles they killed more than 300 of them, Seamus went to the funeral. He sometimes earned the enmity of a murdered officer’s friends and family, because he also went to the funerals of IRA men.

In his memoir, “A Shared Home,” published last year, Seamus wrote about his categorical rejection of all violence, whether it came from Irish republicans, British loyalists, or agents of the British government.

“Early on,” he wrote, “I made a promise to myself that I would show my abhorrence at political and sectarian violence by visiting the homes of the bereaved — all the bereaved, whatever their background — and if at all possible pay my respects by attending the funerals of everybody who was killed by such violence in my constituency.”

Seamus abhorred violence, not just on moral grounds, but because he believed it was entirely counterproductive to the goal of Irish unification. He did not believe Protestant unionists could be bombed or shot or coerced into a united Ireland. He believed in the powers of persuasion and democracy, of equality and shared responsibility.

The advent of peace in Northern Ireland had an odd, inverse effect on politics there. The parties once considered the most extreme, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists, pushed aside the moderates in the SDLP and Ulster Unionist Party and became the dominant representatives of their respective communities. Hume saw it as an acceptable if not inevitable price for peace, but Seamus was frustrated, seeing his party’s marginalization as unfair and unnecessary.

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As Seamus noted in his memoir, Tony Blair, the British prime minister, told him an unvarnished, hard truth about why the British and Irish governments spent so much time appeasing the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, at the expense of the SDLP: “The trouble with you fellows, Seamus, is that you have no guns.”

Politics in Ireland are now argued at the end of a pointed finger instead of a pointed gun, and Seamus is one of the reasons that is so.

There was an indefatigable decency about Seamus Mallon. He was, as they say in South Armagh, sound.

He should be more than a footnote in the history books, because he stood for all the right things for all the right reasons, and saw them through, to the end.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.