Now the turn of Seamus Mallon at 80. Why he and Trimble were unable to unite over arms decommissioning remains unexplained

Following the tributes to John Hume on his 80th   birthday, the venerable SDLP deputy leader and  the initial deputy first minster Seamus Mallon has given a fascinating interview to the Irish News  for his own  80th.

In passing I can’t help noticing the comparisons and contrasts with Sinn Fein. What are yours?

On working with David Trimble, Ulster unionist leader and the first FM

Mallon says his permanent secretary, civil servant Billy Gamble – “an absolute gem” – regularly had to remind the first minister’s office that it was a joint operation. He was often irked by slights – another that springs to mind was when Mallon had to insist that Trimble come to his office next time after he was “summoned” to that of his supposed partner-in-power – in a way that seems to parallel the circumstances which in part prompted McGuinness’s decision to stand down on January 9.


Somehow you can’t see Foster and McGuinness sharing a glass of whiskey after agreeing a contentious issue such as the flying of the Union flag at Stormont that Mallon and Trimble – “a brilliant parlimentarian” – once did, Mallon recalls, when the SDLP man suggested the same practice as Westminster – flying the flag on agreed, nominated days only.


On the DUP.

The essence of their position is that it’s their assembly, it’s their executive. They are forgetting that the Good Friday Agreement is based on the principles of inclusivity and of parallel consent, that nothing can be agreed or done without consent of those representatives of both traditions.”

He continues: “Did Martin McGuinness get all the information that he should have got as DFM in relation to Red Sky, Nama and RHI? Because if he didn’t, then the process was not working. I make that point because I know that I had those problems too.

“The way in which [Arlene Foster] and her colleagues treated Martin McGuinness was not showing the type of respect that was needed in an executive but shows how they actually still have this old-fashioned unionism, [viewing themselves] as czars. – ‘This is now ours; we are the largest party’ – and they did what they liked.


On relations with John Hume as party leader, he repeats his fairly well known position

“He had a remarkable way of being liked by people who wanted to like him or who he wanted to like him. John, most of the time, didn’t want to let the left hand know what the right was doing. And I suppose my response was, ‘That’s grand, I’ll plough my own furrow’, so exclusion happened there too, although I wouldn’t overstate it.”

“On policy and party stuff, we worked exceptionally well together. There wasn’t friction but because of the tensions there between two different types of people, you get a certain amount of electricity and drive. We didn’t have rows, although we often used bad language to each other. I was very fond of him in a curious way. I still am and have great respect for his intellect and his capacity.”

Mallon confirms that he was only asked to be DFM on the morning of July 1 1998, the day his appointment was officially announced, even though Hume had met him in Dublin for coffee the previous day. His only inkling that something might be up was when, while in Dublin, the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, sent a car to pick him up for an urgent meeting, which then didn’t materialise.

“The next morning back in Castle Buildings, I began to wonder if I’m in the right place. [Then Ulster Unionist MP] John Taylor came in and told me I was in the wrong place – ‘Your party meeting is at the Wellington Park Hotel,'” he says. “So I went up there and that’s when I was told, quite literally.”

“The obvious time for ( him to become party leader) would have been when I was appointed DFM – that was a time for a change. It didn’t happen, which left me in a rather difficult situation, a sort of limbo.” .

“You were there speaking on behalf of the community and [John Hume] was there as your party leader [saying things such as] ‘You shouldn’t have said that, you know’. There was always that.

“I would have loved to have been party leader but I had a choice to make. My wife was ill; she had dementia, she was deteriorating and it was no-brainer. I had to do my duty. I couldn’t have lived with myself if I hadn’t.”

It’s quite a puzzle why Seamus, an otherwise forceful man,  didn’t press his views more strongly at the time.  I would like to have heard him drawn out on why he and Trimble didn’t agree on recommending the suspension of Sinn Fein from the Assembly because  the IRA were dragging their feet  on arms decommissioning.

On the one hand in 1999, Ed Moloney reported:

The atmosphere between the Unionist leader and his SDLP partner is said to have been slowly deteriorating for weeks principally because of Trimble’s insistence on actual IRA decommissioning before Sinn Fein is permitted to take up seats in the new NI Executive. “Its been pretty bad for a while and something has gone awry in their relationship”, admitted the source.

SDLP sources meanwhile say that Mallon is increasingly frustrated at what he sees as Trimble’s grandstanding over decommissioning. “Its raising questions about whether Trimble is at all serious about the Good Friday Agreement”, said one SDLP source.”

But in 2015, Seamus himself declared:

The agreement was seen as a triumph for British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach [Irish Prime Minister] Bertie Ahern who had been closely involved in the talks.

Although the agreement was a “great step forward”, it was part of a “flawed process”.

If the two governments had told Sinn Féin they would not be in government until the IRA got rid of its arms “they would have done it [decommissioned] because they were holding onto the arms as a political weapon”.

“The governments’ failure was bad tactical politics and devalued and tarnished the agreement and the currency of politics,” he said.

Some people don’t realise that two and a bit years before Good Friday, the Provos [Provisional IRA] had already done their negotiations with London and Dublin and with America,” he said.

“They had been talking to the British, they had been talking to [John] Hume and had been talking to Dublin and they had been talking to America.

And they had been laying down their basis for ending [their campaign] before the [Good Friday Agreement] negotiations even started. Things “could and should have been done differently.

The failure of them to deliver had resulted in the “destruction of David Trimble who had made a courageous decision, took enormous abuse and at the end of the day was thrown out of the boat by the two governments when they called the [2003] election.”

The total fundamental weak part of it was that the governments allowed them [Sinn Féin] to set the agenda.”



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