Former Deputy first minister of Northern Ireland

Born: August 17, 1936;

Died: January 24, 2020.

SEAMUS Mallon, who has died aged 83, was the Deputy first minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly from 1998 until 2001, in the power-sharing executive under David Trimble.

As deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, he was a member of the SDLP’s group in the Stormont talks which led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. He will be remembered as one of the key architects of the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Mallon was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1973 and the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention in 1975, and was appointed to the Republic of Ireland’s Seanad Eireann in 1982 by Taoiseach Charles Haughey; however, rules around polticians sitting in bodies in two countries meant that he had to give up his place in 1982 Northern Irish Assembly because of this.

In 1979 he became deputy leader of the SDLP – whose pursuit of Irish nationalism was based around political negotiation and rejection of violence – under leader John Hume, who was the party’s other key negotiator during the peace process. Hume and the Ulster Unionist, David Trimble,were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998, although Mallon clashed with Trimble during his three years as his deputy.

Between 1986 and 2005, Mallon was also the Westminster MP for Newry and Armagh.

Raised as a Roman Catholic and instinctively an Irish nationalist who sought reunification of the island, Mallon was nevertheless a politician who attracted praise for his conciliatory manner from all sides.

He was raised – and continued to live all his life – amid a community which was largely unionist, and in County Armagh he wasn’t far from some of the most violent sectarian hotspots and incidents of the Troubles.

Mallon recounted how on separate occasions loyalists had tried to burn his house down and had broken his windows. Yet he earned a great deal of respect by attending the funerals of all victims of the Troubles in his constituency, regardless of their faith.

Mallon counted many Protestants among his close neighbours and friends, and remained focused upon a political passage which favoured neither one side nor the other, but which travelled towards unification in a manner which respected each community in the North.

Unlike many of his fellow nationalists, he believed in reunification through the process of ‘parallel consent’; that is, that Irish reunification should happen not just with an electoral majority in Northern Ireland, but with separate majorities – or at least appropriate benchmarks of support being met – in both nationalist and unionist communities.

His reputation as a conciliator aside, however, Mallon got the job done as a sharp and to-the-point political operator. The former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland John Reid once remarked of him: “I’m from Glasgow, and we’re not delicate flowers, but Seamus is the only guy I know who can make ‘good morning’ sound like a threat.”

Seamus Frederick Mallon was born in the village of Markethill in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, in 1936, to Frank Mallon , headmaster of the local primary school, and Jane O’Flaherty, who was originally from County Donegal; he was the only son amid five children. Both of his parents had been supportive of the IRA in the early part of the 20th century, but passed on their disillusionment with violence to young Seamus.

In fact, his maternal uncles had all fought with the IRA and one of them was imprisoned with Eamon de Valera, yet he had died young as a result of what Mallon described as “ailments” picked up during these years. “The only weapons which should ever be used in this country again are words,” Mallon recounted his father saying in his 2019 memoir, A Shared Home Place. “Guns never solve problems, they make them.”

Mallon recalled having “a happy childhood, and I felt secure and well looked-after.” He went to grammar schools in Armagh and Newry, where he developed the enthusiasm for Gaelic football which his father had passed on to him, playing for teams including Middletown, Keady Dwyers, Queen’s University and Crossmaglen Rangers, winning three Armagh senior championships with the latter.

He attended teacher training college in Belfast and returned to teach in Newry, where his pupils included the future Tottenham Hotspur and Northern Ireland goalkeeper, Pat Jennings, and the future British heavyweight boxing champion, Dan McAlinden.

Eventually, Mallon succeeded his father as headmaster of the local primary school and became interested in theatre, directing schools and local companies in productions of Oklahoma and West Side Story, as well as plays by Brendan Behan and George Bernard Shaw.

Yet witnessing anti-Catholic discrimination caused him to become involved in the civil rights movement and then in local politics.

Mallon was predeceased in 2016 by his wife Gertrude, whom he had married in 1964. He left politics to care for her in the last decade of her life. The couple had one daughter, Orla, and a granddaughter.

“It’s impossible to assess one’s role but… at the very heart of my involvement in politics was to help people,” he told the Irish Independent last year, “especially to help people in a divided society… and I hope I helped in those circumstances.”