Seamus Mallon: “No gobbledegook peace-nik speak, no motherhood and apple pie…”


Tom Kelly in the Irish News today makes a point worth re-iterating in the case of Seamus Mallon:

Mallon is an erudite, eloquent but earthy politician. Listeners immediately get what he is saying. There’s no gobbledegook peace-nik 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 Hume-Adams process rather than a SDLP-SF process blinded them to good old fashioned common sense and political nous.

Which suggests there’s been a disconnection between language and purpose: ie the words that people say and what they actually intend to do. In ‘giving up’ the party has already, suggested Mallon, handed on the baton to Sinn Fein.

But the effects are more general than electoral losses to the SDLP. Lack of long term political vision ensures we lean on a cocktail of unaccountable populism, technocracy and opportunism. As Kelly rightly notes, Gobbledegook for the most part.

This in turn has led to disengagement amongst the northern nationalist middle class, the former base territory of the SDLP. The knock on corollary is that political nationalism is leeching both support and coherence.

In order to compensate for a lack of long term vision (beyond, ‘just trust us’) and maintain a fundamentalist appeal to their respective bases both OFMdFM parties focus on making short term appeals to their own exclusive tribalist bases.

The casualty is the undermining of public confidence in even the possibility of meaningful partnership politics. At which point back to Mallon, or rather back to Orwell

If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

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  • Zig70

    I never really liked Mallon as a leader. He had that air of entitlement similar to Brown after Blair. His waspish attitude to the rest of nationalist politics started the rot.

  • Big Boss


    Forgive me im at a loss…. was the air of entitlement you sensed to do with his role as DFM (When the SDLP where voted the largest party in the north) or as SDLP leader…which he never had?

  • Mick Fealty

    I’m sure he thinks highly of you too zig, and back to thread…

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    I was thinking of Seamus Mallon, a few days ago.

    If Seamus was a football manager…he would be Alex Ferguson.
    If Alex Ferguson was a SDLP politician…he would be Seamus.
    Never really warmed to him except recognising he is a very brave and outspoken…and more often right than wrong.
    But that hairdryer thing….yes cant say that Im sorry to have missed out on that.
    But as fans of Fergie will have noted this year….he was worth 15 points in any season.

    There is a lesser, gossipy kinda point to be made to be spun,involving how the SDLP are always at war….one of those things that while based in fact, is usually spun beyond reality by enemies of SDLP in the bloggosphere.

    There is I think evidence that SDLP is not overly social (like SF) or happy clappy (like Alliance …in public at least).
    My own campaign for SDLP to hire a hotel and do a great big “get-to-know-you” weekend ….has fallen on deaf ears.

  • Mick Fealty

    It could be the withdrawal from the furness of the conflict when people depended on each other more than latterly. But then I think that’s a natural condition of peacetime politics.

  • tmitch57

    “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 Hume-Adams process rather than a SDLP-SF process blinded them to good old fashioned common sense and political nous.”


    I think Kelly’s quote illustrates the problem with any political party having a leader who is too powerful. NI has had several of these leaders: Hume, Paisley, Adams, possibly Molyneaux–although I think he maintained his position mainly through inertia and lack of competition. A mature party needs a leader whose decisions and strategy can be questioned by his associates if not the rank and file. Hume sacrificed the future of the party for the sake of peace without really consulting anyone about it.

  • Zig70

    Big boss, the GFA was an artificial high. Seamus can’t take the credit. He was a good deputy, a good MP but that does not make you a leader. He was too straight, too direct and lacked Hume’s ability to gather in the edges. Mallon attacked the nationalist fringe and shrunk the party. He made no bones of his dislike of SF. Politics is almost the opposite of the qualities laid out in this thread.

  • Mick Fealty

    That would be those fringe nationalists who voted for him until he stepped down and then swapped the SDLP for Conor and SF?

  • Niall Noigiallach

    If the SDLP were in fact “robbed of a chance to have this man lead it” then that is a matter for the SDLP and those who opted for John Hume or Mark Durkan as leader. I have to disagree with the “mortgaged their credibility” piece. This is normally presented as an excuse for Sinn Fein overtaking the SDLP as if they made a big sacrifice but thats far from the truth. It costs nothing to knock on a few doors and do some actual campaigning and certainly in my experience anyway, the SDLP have lacked this for quite a number of years. More often than not they assume that certain people will or should vote for them rathar than campaign to win votes.

    In the last round of council elections I got a knock at the door from an SDLP council candidate. I’ve known the fella almost all my life and we grew up in the same street just a few doors away from each other. Nice guy, smart, always friendly and somebody you could vote for. Upon me answering the door and seeing I lived there his face sank and he completely deflated because he wrongly assumed he’d know my politics as we lived in the same street as kids. No pitch for my vote, no saying why he was standing for election. Nothing. He didn’t even try to put his case forward. Times are hard when you can’t even be bothered to canvass neighbours for a vote because you think they aren’t worth persuading.

    It brings me on to a point Mick made above, about disengagement with the northern nationalist middle class. Chasing middle class nationalist votes in my opinion is where the SDLP are losing out. I would even argue that such a section of the population is actually shrinking and even non-existent. What is a middle-class nationalist anyway? I myself would probobly tick all the boxes in terms of criteria there. My job, income, place of residence etc on the face of it could be viewed as middle class however niether my wife or myself would ever refer to ourselves as “middle-class”. Definitely not, we’re very much working class and always will be, dispite being fairly successful in Belfast terms. The SDLP are courting a vote that simply no longer exists or maybe never existed. How many “middle class” nationalists would refer to themselves as such or see themselves as middle class? Not very many in my opinion. And it’s here where the SDLP are losing out

  • OneNI

    ‘What is a middle-class nationalist anyway? ‘

    Largely someone of Irish identity and Catholic background who wants the Union to continue for their lifetime (and probably the lifetime of their kids)

  • Mick Fealty


    To my certain knowledge that is a subset, but I don’t think it adequately defines the whole.

  • Zig70

    I would go further to say that is absolute rubbish, OneNI. Wishful thinking and ignorance. A middle class nationalist is simply a nationalist (non-Union supporting by definition) that meets social criteria. Doesn’t actually matter whether they see themselves as middle class or not. The distinction I think Niall is getting at is a socialist mindset that is prevalent within the Catholic middleclass that the SDLP still meet but don’t adequately get on message. The middle class Catholic vote is a big prize that should be retrievable from SF and again my humble opinion is that SDLP are on the right track if they can get a decent message and a bit more energy. Again, they have never asked me for my vote in this age of data.

  • Big Boss


    Artifical high or getting deserved credit for thier role in bringing peace? Seamus never took credit but credit was due tyo the SDLP and at the time they got it. Youve admitted that he was a good DFM, MP so in that regarde was he not a good leader if the majority of nationalist/republican people kept voting for him untill his retirement? Why place the blame on Mallon for the party shrinking? he retired the same time as John Hume, surely they then both equally share the blame for the party vote going down?

  • socaire

    I always had the impression that Shame-us was unaware of the ‘Hume-Adams’ peace strategy. He certainly would not willingly have given up his cosy position as constitutional politician and darling of the moderate unionists to advance the cause of Sinn Féin. His mask of gravitas and elder statesmanship often slipped and his hatred of republicans came to the fore. He stood down before he got the bum’s rush and in that aspect he was a good leader – well to the front of the ratpack jumping ship.

  • Alan N/Ards

    I watched the RTE programme about Seamus Mallon and was highly impressed by the man. I didn’t appreciate him or the sdlp during my youth but I have gradually come to respect him and many of the party. I certainly don’t consider myself a nationalist, and to be honest I struggle with nationalism of any sort, but I am thinking of voting for Alex Attwood at the European election. I have been so sickened by the antics of unionist politicians that I find myself in the position of voting sdlp in a major election for the first time. I also believe him to be man of integrity and I will happily vote for him. I have considered Alliance and NI21 but Alex gets my vote.

  • 241934 john brennan

    socaire ‘I always had the impression that Shame-us was unaware of the ‘Hume-Adams’ peace strategy’.

    Completely wrong. When Hume-Adams talks began, Eddie McGrady made the following statement at a party meeting.
    ‘Whatever you think of Sinn Fein ,Hume’s logic is irrefutable. If talking to Adams can save a single life we have to go with it. If we manage to bring Sinn Fein in from the cold, we will pay the price in SDLP votes. What is more -when push comes to shove, in a deal to get Sinn Fein to give up on the armed struggle, both the British and Irish government will shaft the SDLP’.

    He was right – but while both McGrady and Mallon were passionate about theSDLP, both regarded service to the public as their primary political duty.

  • socaire

    Jeez, I’m welling up. Greater love than this no man hath than to give up party power to the bloody Sinners. Your quote,john, did not come ‘When Hume-Adams talks began’ but when they were almost over and the deal was being sold to the party faithful. I knew SDLP councillors who were completely unaware of the machinations of their leader.

  • Reader

    socaire: He certainly would not willingly have given up his cosy position as constitutional politician and darling of the moderate unionists to advance the cause of Sinn Féin.
    Hardly the ‘darling’ of moderate unionists, who would have seen him as a genuine constitutional nationalist and a fierce champion of that position. I suppose unionists eventually warmed to his honesty and integrity, and the moderates among us recognised the justice of his remark that the Good Friday Agreement was “Sunningdale for slow learners”.
    Shinners however, not equipped to recognise his virtues, and remembering their own blanket rejection of Sunningdale, have never forgiven him for that remark.

  • Tochais Síoraí

    Always found a bit interesting that SM lives in Markethill, a place that always struck me as being fairly hardline unionist, not the obvious place for a fairly outspoken nationalist and republican (the latter of course in the wider sense of the word). Did he ever sneak many votes from themmuns?

  • socaire

    Markethill would indeed be a fairly hardline unionist town but Seamus would not have been seen as a threat to the status quo. Anytime that a member of the home guard was killed, he was the first mutton dummy to be wheeled out with his sheaf of condemnations. And, of course, he thought that GFA was S’dale for slow learners. Wasn’t he a teacher? Republicans have not forgiven him for many things but ‘slow learners’ is not near the top.

  • Greenflag

    Always thought Mallon was a direct talking no messing about politician. The very opposite end of the personality spectrum from say a Bert Ahern who was hail fellow -well met with nary a political enemy in sight or to challenge him .

    Mallon was Mallon and is Mallon and he’d have got my vote in any election . As to being the leader that the SDLP should have had I can’t comment but he gave the impression certainly of not suffering fools gladly -which is always a marker for abrasive politics . Perhaps he picked up the trait in Markethill from earlier ‘unionist ‘ opponents ?

    That said it’ll take a political colossus of the mien of a Daniel O’Connell or Dev to resurrect the SDLP’s decline . And I know this may sound heartless but I can’t even name the current SDLP leader . Robinson, Nesbitt, Adams , Allister I can recall without googling but the current SDLP leader I’d have to do a search :(

    Did’nt have that problem when Hume was atop .
    Have they changed their leader recently there was a Ritchie and a Durkan but I’ve forgotten the new one .

    Embarrassing truly but somehow I think it makes a point

  • Greenflag

    Got it now it’s Alasdair McDonnell and he’s been leader since 2011 ———- sheeesh .

    I guess he keeps a low profile ?

  • 241934 john brennan

    Socaire: Downpatrick is not a hard-line unionist town. But when Eddie McGrady was fighting elections against Enoch Powell, local Sinn Fein ‘activists’ opposed Grady, and opposed all politics, because they were ‘abstentionists’, physical force republican fighting to free Ireland . That included them trying to intimidate McGrady by tearing down his election posters, physically attacking his election workers, picketing his house and intimidating his wife, to the extent the police also had to present outside McGrady’s house at election times. So the Nationalist’s just didn’t need to out-poll Powell, they had to do that and also beat the Sinn Fein abstentionists. So, before 1987,South Down was represented by a right wing English Unionist for at least 4, if not 8 years, before McGrady overcame the combined Powell/SF combination.

  • socaire

    We know that the SDLP are uncanonized saints but what is your point re Mallon?

  • 241934 john brennan

    My point is that Mallon, Hume and McGrady, jointly and separately, did all the most heavy political lifting in the peace process, knowing full well they and their party would not be the main beneficiaries.
    They were not saints, but they did put peace before self-interest.
    That is something that socaire seems incapable of understanding. His reference to Mallon as ‘Shame-us’ says more about him than it does Mallon

  • socaire

    And I’m saying that although all the head honchos in SF were aware of the talks, Hume was on a solo run. There is no way that the SDLP would give up their position to benefit Sinn Féin – especially Mallon. And the Free state government also knew. I believe that Hume could put peace above self/party interest but not those others.

  • 241934 john brennan

    Socaire: You disappoint, showing a typical brainwashed Sinn Fein mindset, which believes the function of organised politics is merely to advance the causes of its military wing. Your absurd thesis is that every elected SDLP member, apart from its leader, John Hume, supported the military wing of the SDLP. Do you also think that Mallon and McGrady were also on the SDLP’s seven-man Army Council? Furthermore you seem to think Mallon did for the SDLP, what double agents, like Denis Donaldson, did for Sinn Fein.

  • socaire

    Sorry to disappoint again,john, but I am not a Sinn Féin member/voter nor do I believe that the SDLP have a military wing. Unless you count the British forces which the SDLP believe have a right to be here otherwise they would support the efforts made to remove them. I view the Republicans as a movement not as a political party. I repeat that Mallon and others were unaware of Hume’s overtures to the Provos and that Mallon, in particular, was very opposed to the moves when they came to light. I am, however unaware that Mallon was an agent never mind a double agent.

  • Tochais Síoraí

    So Socaire, it would appear that you believe the GFA wasn’t Sunningdale for slow learners. Why not?

  • socaire

    No matter about the merits or demerits of Sunningdale, the time was not right. You can’t settle a conflict by negotiating with the weaker parties. The SDLP and UUP were happy enough as long as they were top dogs not being able to see that they might not always be. When you make an agreement with the English, you will always come out worst because if things don’t turn out right for them, they will pull rank and resort to force.

  • socaire

    Some commentators have referred to the Agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners”, which suggests that it was nothing more than what was on offer in the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973.[13] This assertion has been criticised by political scientists one of whom stated that “..there are… significant differences between them [Sunningdale and Belfast], both in terms of content and the circumstances surrounding their negotiation, implementation, and operation”.[14]
    The main issues omitted by Sunningdale and addressed by the Belfast agreement are the principle of self-determination, the recognition of both national identities, the British-Irish intergovernmental cooperation and the legal procedures to make power-sharing mandatory, such as the cross-community vote and the d’Hondt system to appoint ministers to the executive.[15][16] Former IRA member and journalist Tommy McKearney says that the main difference is the intention of the British government to broker a comprehensive deal by including the IRA and the most uncompromising unionism

  • Reader

    socaire: the principle of self-determination,
    Which already existed for decades, in that while there was a parliament in Stormont it could have voted to take Northern Ireland out of the union. Now, of course, it can’t.
    Your tame political scientist forgot to mention the Council of Ireland, too. Care to speculate why?
    Is Tommy McKearney praising the decision to bring the DUP on board via the St Andrew’s agreement, or pointing out that Jim Allister is still not on board and needs to be included?

  • IrelandNorth

    I always considered this soft spoken, clearly quite profound man to have been totally underrated in the context of neo-provincial politics. A big fish in a very small pond indeed, which he would have been marginally less so in an all Ireland context. His dictum that: “Every generation has the right to write its own history” remains one of the most insightful comments of the peace process period, which should be etched in stone to considerable effect not least in N Ireland/Ulster (NI/U), but Ireland generally, and by logical extention, GB too. Perhaps it’s not too late for a tilt at the Irish presidency yet for this elder Irish statesman. Another Ulsterian would be a positive boon indeed.