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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  • EddieWhyte

    Have to admit I stopped reading after a few lines when Mallon is quoted as saying “Somehow you can’t see Foster and McGuinness sharing a glass of whiskey after agreeing a contentious issue”. Well nobody could really seeing as it is public knowledge that MMcG is teetotal. No idea if AF is fond of a wee drink? Poor Seamus. So bitter and desperate for attention.

  • Fear Éireannach

    The issue here is not the nature of the drink taken, it is the sitting down for a shared social interaction. It is a bit desperate to try and claim that Mallon was making some point about being teetotal or not.

  • EddieWhyte

    The point is that Mallon is so embittered that he doesn’t even bother to try to be impartial but reflects on everything based on his OWN views and experiences – renders him useless as a political commentator.

  • lizmcneill

    Is that part of Mallon’s quote or is he only telling the story of himself and Trimble?v


    He really was and still is a very bitter man, nothing is worth destroying your
    own standard of living.especially in our old age..

  • Granni Trixie

    But would you not agree that what Mallon says is consistent with other accounts suggesting Trimble is an awkward customer plus the criticism that he did not really try to “sell” the Agreement to unionists. If so then Mallon was to be congratulated in sticking it out with Trimble for the greater good.

  • Granni Trixie

    But as someone with unique experiences his account, his version of events and people is to be welcomed. With multiple accounts we will be better placed to judge the history of the troubles.

  • EddieWhyte

    Well it is in cursive and with inverted commas so I presume it is a direct quote 🙂

  • eireanne3

    Surely the interesting point to emerge from Mr Mallon’s interview was, as Brian points out, the similarity with issues that Mr McGuinness raised in his resignation letter.

    “regularly had to remind the first minister’s office that it was a joint operation”.
    “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.”
    “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.

    Unionists, whether Trimble’s UUP then or Foster’s DUP now have not assimilated the precepts of the GFA/Belfast Agreement.
    They display no inclination to implement them.
    And they are even proud of these facts, boasting of them when they can (see Poots on the Irish Language Act).

    After so many years and so many chances to adapt, are we to believe a change in attitude is credible/plausible/probable?

  • eireanne3

    why should an individual’s views and experiences be considered useless?
    For example, if you are thinking of going somewhere on holiday and another person tells you s/he has been there and it was awful, wouldn’t you think twice about booking and investigate a little more?

  • mickfealty

    All political careers end, to one extent or another, in failure. So I think while it’s fair to note the bitterness, we can also acknowledge it comes with some justification.

    Brian’s question is probably answerable through the disparities of opinion within the party. It’s original strength was the ability to tie Derry and Belfast together. Seamus was geographically tangential to that key relationship.

    [It’s interesting that the Adams and McGuinness succession was based on a similar geographical duality.]

    If it had been down to Seamus, I suspect he would have given it a lash, but i doubt he had the support within a party, which by 2001 already knew it was on a deep electoral slide.

    A slide that, four leaders later, has continued to this very day but which now seems to have affected not merely the SDLP, but nationalism in general.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    My own reading of what my Unionist relatives tell me, is that much of Unionism has simply never accepted the concept of shared power and simply conform to Westminster’s demands sufficently to avert any open action against them. And so everyone in actual power everywhere lazily lets this sluggishly continue, and then expresses surprise or annoyance when some crisis knocks the whole thing down. No wonder we are still pretty much on the starting blocks with some things regarding the ambiguities of the Belfast Agreement after nearly twenty years!

  • Brian Walker

    It was the decision of the two governments to allow the 2 year timetable for decommissioning to slip that was probably crucial.Their resolve on this point was doubtful from the start.

    It was always clear that the UUP and the SDLP felt they couldn’t hold the line alone. The only sanction they had was to suspend themselves, not Sinn Fein.

    All the same, it was a great pity that Mallon and Trimble kept squabbling over the importance of decommissioning to the survival of the institutions. A joint line should have been possible and worth the risk.

    Mallon veered from a line close to Sinn Fein at the time to years later condeming the governments for allowing Sinn Fein to take their Executive seats only on the promise of decommissioning rather than its continuously verifiable implementation.

    Should the governments’ fear that the IRA would have pulled the plug on the whole process have been tested against the joint resolve of the UUP and the SDLP to ask for Sinn Fein to be suspended unless decommisioning was continuously being verified?

    The actual tortuous modalities of decommissioning would have made it very difficult. This alas is now a question only for history.

  • mickfealty

    But isn’t it in the gift of the long retired to be more candid long after the fact? Denis Healey was much more interesting then than when he was Chancellor.

    But I cannot think of any that was prepared to completely trash their own legacy by fully admitting their contribution to the ‘mistakes’ of the past.

    This is why I get a bit irritated by those who call on old Provos to apologise for their past. Of course they won’t, its part of their own personal mythology. Why would/could they disown it?

    Yet, we play at these games of mutual self negation at our peril.

  • Brian Walker

    Granni,, The problem with Seamus is that said one thing at the time and another thing much later.

  • Granni Trixie

    So – is that not how memory/processes works with everyone?


    i agree,.however, It is possible that Tremble would say the
    same thing about Seamus.Its also true to say thay Seamus
    did not have the authority,for some reason Hume never took him into his confidence.Did Seamus want to rub the noses of the Provos in the proverbial…

  • J D

    Because unlike Unionists Mallon was not a fool who was trying to bury the peace process over an IRA constitutional issue that everyone believed they could not overcome.

    The demand for decommissioning was invented by John Major at the behest of the DUP AFTER the ceasefire which the govt had promised would lead IMMEDIATELY to talks. But as usual the British govt lied and now depending on the DUP votes for a slim majority in Westminster ended up killing the first ceasefire over their BS demands.

    On Unionism and their allies, always ignorant of history and truth.

    Edit: At the behest of Unionism, primarily UUP, not just the DUP. But boy did Ian mór make a big racket back in the day.

  • Brian Walker

    Mallon loathed the republican movement for the armed struggle which in his analysis, blocked the clear view of a united Ireland. Ideologically he was more conservative and closer to old fashioned traditional nationalism than Hume. . On the other hand he had better relations with many unionists and was less – frankly – egotistical. and quite the gruff schoolmaster.

    As Seamus’s interview makes pretty clear, they were a study in contrasts.

    I have no doubt Mallon was an ardent constitutionalist who saw the SDLP slipping at a time when it should have consolidated after more than a decade of threat from the continuing Troubles. Trimble too was equally, even pedantically a constitutionalist. but they of course strongly differed over constitutional outcomes. Temperamentally they both had short fuses and liked each other better at a distance. These were problems that I think they over indulged and should have been manged better.

    But the question of forming a common front with Trimble over decommissioning remains.
    There was the huge factor that their constituencies pulled in different directions. But this was a very new environment and risks should have been worth taking. Hume if I recall rightly had already stepped out the limelight. I wonder if Seamus feared that if he’s confronted SF more that Hume would have disapproved for risking his own legacy? Quite a few people must have the answers; I don’t. It was a potential opportunity lost to start creating a centre ground


    No doubt it was a hard time for all sides..i have my
    doubts that revisionism by any leader at this time is
    of value.Granted Seamus had to look over his shoulder and wonder what Hume was thinking for the
    sake of his party, obviously John never took
    him into his confidence. I have often wondered why
    Seamus never did seem to grasp how hard it was for Adams and McGuinness to convince their people that the u-turn at that ttime was right..Hume always had the big picture in mind..

  • Brian Walker

    Up to a point Lord Copper. And not so much when the earlier version is on the record…

  • Brian Walker

    Different point

  • Granni Trixie

    Not for one moment do I think that official record are but a version of N ‘truth’ – or auto/biographies .
    A good example being the story of the troubles where for example women’s contribution to change is all but invisible as is the perspective of the middle ground. Then there is the question of lack of access to some worlds in NI during the troubles – paramilitaries,police etc. Supporting my view that a build up of multiple accounts is the onlynway forward.

    And bEsides, recorded accounts are are written for particular purposes not necessarily to be accepted as ‘truth’.

  • grumpy oul man

    Ee are still waiting for the unionist terror groups to decommission but that has never been a issue with unionists only nationlist guns seem to matter.
    During the hieght of the troubles when unionists were being self righteous about not talking to terrorists they happily worked with terrorists(as long as they were unionist terrorists) even today while the rant about SFs past they hand pay packets to unionist terror group leaders.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Very interesting stuff in the older interview about the destructive delays over decommissioning. At the time it seemed the SDLP was being much less supportive than that. If he’s right then it suggests it really was a stitch up between the government and the Shinners. With such massive implications for political life since then in that, I think an inquiry is needed.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    They could disown their pasts simply by following through with the logic of the rejection of terrorism. And to be fair, some have. I know it’s a minority but they show it’s possible.

    If we give up pushing for the complete rejection of terrorism, we allow its embers to smoulder dangerously.

    There are people in both communities being raised to think shooting their neighbours can be called “war” and therefore a noble and worthy calling, if the circumstances require it. These are shaky foundations for long term peace, not to mention short-term mutual trust and respect.

    We need in both communities to learn from post-war West Germany: they had to live with people in their midst who did terrible things, but by the 60s a generation of young Germans was questioning their parents, and pushing forward for a more honest and explicit rejection of the past. Sure, they weren’t all going to be tried or even bothered, but the deal was they stay out of public life and do nothing to stand in the way of the new society. And they showed zero tolerance to anyone who sought to justify the old horrors or glory in them. It was messy and painful but it transformed Germany into a place where violent extremism to this day finds it hard to flourish. Places and their people can change – but they have to really want it and really mean it.

    So in private let them keep their shrines and memorabilia, but the public space must surely be jealously guarded from any glorifications of or excuse-making for past wrongs. That’s not something we can be relaxed about or frankly we perpetuate those values.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Amen – the events of 2003 represent a huge missed opportunity. I’m glad Mr Mallon recognises it now and like you I wonder why Trimble’s position couldn’t have been given the backing it deserved at the time. It was ultimately Blair’s call though, and he was distracted by then. It was a real wrong turn for N Ireland I think, a fork in the road. The undermining of true pro-Agreement unionism was profound. From then on, the hardliners have held all the cards.

  • mickfealty

    On the basis that action speaks louder than words? True, dat.