Posted By: April 01, 2014

Tom Kelly. Irish News( Belfast). Monday, March 31, 2014
LAST week SDLP councillor Pat McCarthy tabled a novel motion to invite Pope Francis
to Belfast.

Some felt he was being mischievous. Certainly the outspoken Ulster Unionist stalwart
Jim Rodgers was having none of it.

McCarthy felt that a papal visit to Belfast would be a sign to the world of its
increasing maturity and confidence as a modern, diverse and dynamic, welcoming city.

Rodgers tied himself in knots trying to explain an indefensible position but his
comments soon put him outside the pale of Mike Nesbitt’s pluralist new-look Ulster
Unionist Party.

It’s ironic in the extreme that unionists in 1963 felt sufficiently confident to
lower the Union flag over city hall following the death of Pope John XXIII but 50
years later an Ulster Unionist councillor whose party co-designed the current
power-sharing agreement got himself into a state of apoplexy over what amounts to
little more than a courtesy motion.

One veteran politician who did resurrect himself last week in a belated but
nonetheless worthy intervention was Seamus Mallon.

His appearance in an RTE interview with the much-missed broadcaster John Bowman was
as spellbinding as it was punchy.

Mallon is an erudite, eloquent but earthy politician. Listeners immediately get what
he is saying.

There’s no gobbledygook peacenik speak, no motherhood and apple pie,  sweet nothings
and certainly no pan-European fudge eulogising about Franco-German love-ins.

Mallon, like Seamus Heaney, does his digging with language. And he did it in spades
on the aptly-named programme For The Record: Seamus Mallon.

Mallon has a story to tell and it’s a pity that he has taken so long to tell only
part of it.

To seasoned observers some of Mallon’s comments only served to demonstrate how the
SDLP was robbed of a chance to have this man lead it.

His reference to the SDLP having “mortgaged their credibility” to bring Sinn Fein in
from the cold would have been spine-chilling listening for some in the SDLP –
particularly amongst those whose unswerving loyalty to the Hume-Adams process rather
than a SDLP-SF process blinded them to good old fashioned common sense and political
nous. Those who took it for granted that an electorate would forever remain

Much is often made of the differences between Mallon and Hume or indeed the
triumvirate of Hume, Mallon and McGrady. Yes, there were marked differences in style
between each of these men but their core principles and commitment were shared.

It was also a partnership that whilst bumpy actually worked pretty effectively with
both the media and the electorate.

It was politically necessary too in order to hold the then broad SDLP church together.

Subsequent SDLP leadership partnerships have not only been dysfunctional but at
times publicly poisonous.

Mallon was incredibly loyal to Hume even when it was difficult to do so because as
he said in the documentary: “John was a remarkable genius, very able but never
wanted to let his left hand know what his right was doing.” And that often included
his right-hand man – Mallon.

In the interview Mallon did not hit the wall and miss when it came to calling
unionist bigotry for what it was when he referenced the unionist councillor who
boasted that no “Catholic and her litter” would ever get a house in Markethill. Nor
did Mallon shy from calling out the IRA for what they were – “cowards” to the core
of their hearts.

The curmudgeonly Mallon in full flow could lash an enemy with the full force of a
cat o’ nine tails and the documentary demonstrated his acerbic observations.

He was both gracious and critical of David Trimble, his partner in government. But
Mallon too had his moments of being both obstinate and obdurate with colleagues as
well as opponents. Never one for apologies or regrets, he would often initiate
passionate rows in the bars at party conferences only to re-emerge in the morning
asking the wounded and irate, “Sure if you can’t fall out with your friends, who can
you fall out with?”

By going on the record Mallon reminded us of his humanity and humour – something
amiss amongst the class of modern professional politicians. And unlike his
successors he was no glass jaw politico – he knew how to roll with media punches.

In 1999 Mallon gave a speech saying “We belong together”. Quoting John Hewitt, he
said: “We are changed. As goat and ox may graze in the same field. And each gain
something from proximity.”

Pity not everyone shares that thought yet.