The passing of Seamus Mallon should remind us that Northern Ireland’s hard-won peace is due to the efforts of men and women of integrity whose non-violent politics and personal sacrifice got us to that point.
We are fortunate that in the last year of his life, Seamus left us a memoir, A Shared Home Place, that not only recounted his historical role in the peace process but was orientated towards the future. In it, he advocated political ‘generosity’ and proposed a form of parallel consent (not just a crude majoritarianism) in any future border poll.
Seamus’s memoir also included a short but intimate chapter, ‘My Catholicism’, in which he shared what his faith had meant, and continued to mean, to him. He wrote (p. 141):
‘My Catholic faith is something that I go to when I am in difficulty. I was reared in the Catholic tradition; I served Mass for years as a youngster. I have had my times of doubt, but those doubts were intellectual doubts: how can you apply logic to various aspects of Catholic doctrine, and above all what comes after life ends.
To put it in its simplest terms, even in my worst times of doubt I could find nothing better. As a human being, I need a concept of a God.’
He also wrote movingly of the forgiveness he had witnessed in the lives of Reavey family, whose three sons were murdered by loyalists; and of Pastor Bob Bain, whose Darkley Gospel Hall congregation was mercilessly attacked by the INLA during a worship service.
Even as his health declined, Seamus continued to model generosity and faith. In fact, he had been due to speak at an event at the upcoming 4 Corners Festival, ‘Considering Grace in Story and Song’, where he was to share his reflections on a book about how Presbyterians responded to the Troubles. Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry will now take part in the event.
4 Corners is an inter-denominational Christian festival that seeks to introduce people to new perspectives, encouraging them to cross boundaries by attending events in ‘corners’ of the city where they would not normally venture.
I am a co-author of the book, Considering Grace: Presbyterians and the Troubles, which is based on interviews with 120 people, mostly Presbyterians. Seamus was one of ten ‘critical friends’ we interviewed for the project.
I interviewed Seamus in Markethill in November 2017. I also filmed a short video, which has been posted on the Presbyterian Church’s Considering Grace Vimeo site.
In the video, Mallon speaks of his ‘love’ for his neighbours from ‘across the religious divide’ and of being inspired by their example.
These are among his most powerful words on the video:
‘My name is Seamus Mallon. I have lived in Markethill, was born there, and have lived there for 82 years. And I would like to think that I have made many, many friends right across the religious divide here. … But it’s not just a matter of making friends, I think it is a matter of how we, as people, as Christian people, live together in this small piece of earth. …
(1:52) I am very often am asked a question, ‘Why do you live out there with all those flags and emblems, etc?’ The answer to that is very simple. It’s my home. It’s the only place I know. It’s the place where I live among people whom I love. And I say that word guardedly, but in a way that I hope people would recognise.’
I’ve suffered with people in this area and been at their funerals. I’ve been present when some were killed. Assassinated. Call it what you like. I have been there in their homes when they lost a husband, a son, an uncle. I know the depth of their sadness. And I know the impossibility of we as human beings – the impossibility to console those people. But we must try. Because in trying we will learn from them. We will see a spirit of forgiveness and the true meaning of Christian love. You will see it in a way which will inspire all of us for every day we live after seeing that.’
In the chapter of Considering Grace that shares the critical friends’ perspectives, Seamus’s story begins with a quotation: ‘Let’s have a Remembrance Day that we can do together’.
I want to share his story from Considering Grace, in the hope that as we remember him, we can remember him together in the same spirit of Christian love and forgiveness that inspired him.
‘Let’s have a Remembrance Day we can do together’
Seamus Mallon had a long and distinguished career in politics, serving as the first Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland (1998–2001) and Deputy Leader of the SDLP (1979–2001). He was part of the SDLP’s negotiations team in the talks that produced the Belfast Agreement. ‘I’ve lived in Markethill, Co. Armagh, all my life. We’ve all lived here for centuries, cheek by jowl. Nobody’s going away. So, we should find a way to live together in justice and peace. The problems have been identified in the Good Friday Agreement but reconciliation between the communities hasn’t even started. That’s an indictment on all of us.’
Seamus described living in Markethill during the Troubles as ‘very harsh at times’. As SDLP spokesperson on justice, ‘I was calling for reforms in policing and the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR)’, while at the same time, ‘I was visiting the houses of families of those in the police and UDR who were killed.’ He recalled the pain of going to visit a bereaved Presbyterian family and being turned away at the door. He attended the funeral of everyone in the village who was killed, regardless of their religion.
Seamus’ Protestant neighbours quietly looked after him in difficult times.
I won’t use names but at a certain point a person gave me a warning that saved my life. That I remember. During a particularly difficult time, during one of the strikes, a man pulled up to our house, opened the boot of his car and brought in enough provisions to do us for a month. I have umpteen of those type of examples – people I treasure. It makes you all the more angry when you see, as I have seen, people lying in the gutter at the side of the road having been shot dead or blown up.
He shook his head:
‘I also ask myself: How in the name of heaven do people have so much goodness and Christianity in them to forgive people who have killed their fathers, daughters, sons, uncles? That human spirit is something that’s inspirational. I’m not sure I would have that type of Christianity in me. But I see it around me all the time.’
Seamus was aware that Presbyterians as well as Catholics had been discriminated against under the penal laws. This gave him ‘empathy’ for Presbyterians due to a shared, historical experience of religious persecution. But he was shocked that many Presbyterians he met were not aware of this history. ‘People from Presbyterian stock have somehow clouded over the fact that they also were discriminated against. I have no hesitation in pointing the finger at the lack of teaching Irish history in Northern Ireland’s schools, especially the history of all sides. If we’re going to solve the problems of today, we need to be aware of the past.’
Seamus was discouraged by the political paralysis created by the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and by how Brexit had destabilised community relations. ‘The church leaders and people in the churches should start breaking down some of those barriers. We should remind each other: God is still there, and we worship the same God. Let’s get on with it.’ He observed that other countries that have emerged from conflicts have created days of remembrance that honour the perspectives of all sides. ‘Let’s have a remembrance day that we can do together. Then we’ll start going places.’
Gladys is a Professor of Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast and a member of the Royal Irish Academy.
She is also a runner who has represented Ireland and Northern Ireland. She blogs on religion and politics at gladysganiel.com