Seamus Mallon: “be good ancestors as opposed to being good rememberers” #JHISS

Where are we, politically, thirty years on from the death of the poet John Hewitt in 1987?

That was the question behind the political panel on Monday’s opening day of the John Hewitt International Summer School runs this week in Armagh.

Former deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon (SDLP) was joined by MLAs Naomi Long (Alliance), Doug Beattie (UUP) and Steven Agnew (Greens). The DUP and SF were invited to participate, but chose not to. The Community Relations Council’s chair Peter Osborne chaired the discussion.

While Seamus Mallon’s voice may no longer have the same amplitude, but his words can still land a punch when he so directs them. He unpacked the “them and us” mentality in society, exploring its origin and why it continues to this day.

“I think we could all look back and point to things that we could have done that we didn’t that might have improved that situation. I pose the question, did the churches do sufficient? Looking back to that time did they take a too softly, softly approach to the use of violence for sectarian political reasons?”

You can watch a selection of clips from Seamus Mallon’s contributions if you don’t want to invest in the whole 85 minute panel! Mallon identified the lack of local history being taught over the years as a weakness. And he was critical of the way that the political process in NI is being operated.

“Maybe we have to start looking at the political process not from a structural administrative point of view [but] to start with what we do to deal with the problems. In 12 years, neither of the two parties which were in charge – and in case there’s any doubt about it, the DUP and Sinn Féin – not one scrap of proper proposals were made in relation to how we as people can live better together. They haven’t done it. And that was the whole essence of the Good Friday Agreement.”

Later, he added:

“Are we at a point that we have a political process that feels itself more powerful and more at home in the type of divided community that we have?”

Later he repeated his view that the SDLP should not have entered Opposition and admitting having rejected becoming a peer.

As the summer school delegates left the room, I could hear people still discussing Mallon’s most memorable line of the afternoon which came when he was asked what might happen in the next 30 years?

“The one thing I think each one of us has in our own capacity is to be good ancestors as opposed to being good rememberers. Think about it. We have a remembrance for everything: real and imaginary.”

Naomi Long spoke about “division” being the problem in Northern Ireland, rather than “difference”. The political peace process had treated the symptoms of sectarianism, but not tackled the actual disease. She wished that people would be as passionate about other people’s rights as their own, adding that rights come with the need for responsibility and respect.

Steven Agnew was proud of how far Northern Ireland has come in thirty years, but “frustrated we haven’t gone further”. He explained how the Good Friday Agreement had voters’ backing, while the agreement at St Andrews was signed by politicians three weeks after an election, and not subject to the electorate’s approval. He applauded the Constitutional Conventions and said that “we need to reform, review and revitalise the Good Friday Agreement”.

I hadn’t heard Doug Beattie speak at an event before, and it was a bit of a revelation. I now understand why he was being touted to fill the vacancy at the top of his party left by Mike Nesbitt. (You can watch his edited highlights below.)

Beattie was an Ulster Unionist with passion, who didn’t mumble, and offered a vision of unionism that was distinctive from the DUP and respectful of difference. Despite the summer beard, he looks and sounds like the leader the UUP need (assuming his military management style can be adapted to suit a party that doesn’t always value discipline).

He described legacy issues as one of the “big ticket items” that has yet to be addressed and said it was “a big festering sore that attacks us at every single minute and has now become a political tool for one community to bash another community through the two political parties”. Education was another of his big ticket items.

“We run an apartheid education system here in Northern Ireland where we deliberately keep Catholic children away from Protestant children at the earliest ages. It’s absolutely terrible. I’ve always said that to bring communities together, to bring people together, the children need to play together, they need to educate together, they need to work together and they’ll get to understand each other.”

He shared an anecdote from the recent General Election campaign.

“I was up a ladder putting a poster up and this guy came up to be and said ‘Doug, good luck to you. You’re going to be the best man for Upper Bann. We need MPs like you because you can see the other side they’re decent people. You’ll make sure we can all work together.’ I said ‘thank you’. He said ‘I can’t vote for you though, because we got to keep them’uns out’. That’s where we are. It’s incredibly difficult to counter that, except to show respect.

“I’ve got huge differences with all political parties and they’ll have differences with me. But I respect difference. I respect where they come from. I respect what they want to achieve. Somebody who wants a unified united Ireland: if they do it peacefully, that is a fair ask. I’m a Ulster Unionist, I want to stay part of the United Kingdom, I do it peacefully, that’s a fair ask.”

He spoke about the “horrible win/lose politics … where if you as a political party give way in any shape or form you’re classed as losing. And if you get what you’re after, you’re classed as winning. And as soon as get that you stand up and applaud yourself for winning something … that’s the terrible way of doing politics.”

A remain voter, Beattie said that he would remain “pessimistic” until Brexit “was done and dusted”.

“I’m also slightly ashamed as I sit here. Why am I ashamed? Because I’m an elected MLA, I’m a legislator and I’m not doing my job. And that is an absolute shame. Shame on me, shame on my party, shame on all the political parties that we can’t get together and sort this out for the good of the people of Northern Ireland. And I will remain shamed until we finally get together.”

He added:

“I’m an Irish Unionist. The shamrock belongs to me. The Irish language belongs to me. The Gaelic games belong to me. St Patrick’s Day. The Sash. God Save the Queen. The Orange Order. They’re all mine. It’s part of Northern Ireland. It’s part of what I believe in, all of these things. And I respect all people in this country.

“And I understand that some people have visions that take them in completely different direction from me and I absolutely respect that. And I will only become optimistic when we start to absolutely respect difference, when we do sort out the education, when we can stand on the same football terraces and cheer on the same team regardless of where you come from … and I think that will come [because] I think the people are getting absolutely bored with the political classes and I think they will drive change, and the sooner they drive change, the sooner this will be a better place.”

The John Hewitt International Summer School continues in Armagh until Saturday with tickets still available for a range of political and cultural talks and performances, and a well stocked bookstall run by No Alibis.

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  • ElamLayor

    A remain voter, Beattie said that he would remain “pessimistic” until Brexit “was done and dusted”.
    ‘until’ Dougie? ‘after’ more like.

  • Kevin Breslin

    So he’s a skeptic?

    The Ulster Unionists have a refreshing mix of Euro-skepticism and Brexit-skepticism.

    Wish there were more doubting Thomases and less denying Peters around.

  • Brian O’Neill

    Good report alan.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    ““I’m an Irish Unionist. The shamrock belongs to me. The Irish language belongs to me. The Gaelic games belong to me. St Patrick’s Day. The Sash. God Save the Queen. The Orange Order. They’re all mine. It’s part of Northern Ireland. It’s part of what I believe in, all of these things. And I respect all people in this country.”

    Great. Good man Mr Beattie, it’s nice to hear unionist politicians say such things.

  • Muiris

    Séamus Mallon may feel that the Churchs could have done more (to stop the violence).

    When looking at Yugoslavia’s disintegration, & precipitous descent into barbarity, in 1990s, I was repeatedly struck that the only difference between it, & the North, was that here, all authority figures, Church & State, as well as many heroic victims, constantly called for restraint.

  • CB

    Fair play to him. As Alan says he was and is the leader they needed.

  • CB

    Yes. I particularly enjoy Alan’s pieces. It’s obviously a Labour of love, but thanks for taking the time and effort to do it so well.

  • Granni Trixie

    In theory I agree but look what happened when Mike tried to cross the divide? Would he be acceptable to Collegues if he leads in that way?

  • murdockp

    I honestly have no idea what Mallon meant. Good ancestors, as time moves forward the actions of ancestors looks ridiculous to modern times. World war 1, what were they thinking. A flat earth, the bible is true? England will win the world cup again? Brexit? Tulipmania? Slavery? The holocost, world war 2, iraq? Our ancestors have not performed to well so far.

  • Georgie Best

    People should have regard for the world they leave their children, that’s why people are concerned with environmental degradation. Nationalists do believe that a straightforward European society serving all its people will be a better one than one based on 17th century sectarian divisions. What do unionists propose to leave their descendants? What sort of society? One with permanent division?

  • murdockp

    Not a fair comparison. World war one did not kick do due to events in Dublin. Austria hungary Serbia was far more of a pandoras box.

  • Jim M

    Wasn’t Mike’s problem that he tried to go about things in a half-baked way, i.e. encouraging transfers to the SDLP without getting his party on board? Although the alternative is saying ‘this is now what the UUP is about, if you don’t like it, away and join another unionist party’, which is a lot easier said than done…

  • murdockp

    Based on the size of their bonfires a lot of emissions and environmental damage. But I guess they dont care to much as Ireland it is a foreign country and they will be returning back to the virginal pure motherland at some point.

  • Georgie Best

    When NI was founded it was characterised as an industrious place which used modern technology to build great ships that sailed the oceans. While a bigoted place, its founders could claim they were building something for their descendants. Modern NI is concerned with stealing the maximum amount of pallets, including from other districts, to build the biggest bonfire.

  • Granni Trixie

    Completely agree.

  • Séamus

    I think what he meant by good ancestor is to be a good example for future generations. He could have just said that clearly; maybe he decided to be a bit more poetical and abstract for the John Hewitt School crowd.

  • babyface finlayson

    I took it that he meant descendants rather than ancestors.
    That makes more sense.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Good Ancestors? The two Belfast Volunteer companies of the 1780s who set the tone for advanced liberalism at the Dungannon Conventions and opened volunteer membership to their Catholic fellow citizens? The many enlightened cultural movements of the nineteenth century in the north which were similarly egalitarian? The “Alternative Covenant” movement of 1913 which was a touch of sanity as others here supported the recourse to arms against the constitutionalist solution? Sustaining the myth of progress demands our ancestors were somehow more primitive, less enlightened, but in reality they were just as able and intelligent as ourselves, and performed better than our current generation often enough as the examples I’ve suggested clearly show.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    They will hope to leave them the Union, undiluted, I’d imagine. But what they mean by this is probably as contradictory as any other generalised cause which needs to sink some very real differences to hold together.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    As Robert Burton puts it in the Anatomy of Melancholy: “it comes to pass that our generation is corrupt…………our parents our ruin, our fathers bad, and we are like to be worse.”

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Interesting point. Where is a people going if they’ve already achieved their goal? It raises an interesting question about Ulster Unionism’s destiny/future: is there one? Also identity is partially defined by future direction. We hear nothing of the where next. Clinging onto the past and the present is the only option for now.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Fire fighting (imaginary or not) and obstacle building can be distractions from not knowing where one’s going.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    You’re reminding me of the Philip Larkin poem “They f**k you up, your mum and dad …” which is only ironic if the best intentions for the future are contained.
    A weakness within Ulster Unionism is that it’s already achieved its goal of maintaining the union (for now). What does it do with that? Once one goal has been achieved there has to be a next one to follow and a next, ad mortem. The only gift to the next generation appears to be fallacious contrivances.

  • Reader

    It seems fairly straightforward to me. I’m pleased at what some ancestors did, not so pleased about others.
    I’m quite a fan of Mallon – principled, but not too stiff-necked. Direct but not aggressive. Someone you could do business with.
    Such a pity he’s a nationalist.

  • tmitch57

    Alan,
    Very good clips, thanks. I remember that when I was doing research on the Alliance Party and the conflict at the Linen Hall Library in 1998 I came across an issue of the party’s newsletter from the early 1990s in which the writer mentioned canvassing for an election. A voter told her that he thought they had great ideas but he couldn’t vote for them because he had to vote for his camp (unionists). So this illustrates Doug Beattie’s point–and I think its as valid on the nationalist side as well.

    I think Seamus Mallon has matured a lot politically from the time of the New Ireland Forum in 1983 when he was backing Charles Haughey’s plan for a united Ireland in a unitary state in opposition to the rest of his party, which was supporting joint rule. In power as deputy minister Mallon couldn’t even be bothered to pronounce the formal name of the province–it was always “the North of Ireland.”

  • Tochais Siorai

    An rud is annamh is iontach

  • Tochais Siorai

    No. It was always ‘the north of Ireland.’

  • Tochais Siorai

    Ah, you were goin well til the last line.

  • Tochais Siorai

    I think Seamus was referring to the legacy we leave.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Yes and even some of the instigators of violence were scared of what happened in the Balkans. I think it may have speeded the end of the conflict.

  • Muiris

    Interesting, TS, that would never even have occurred to me.

  • babyface finlayson

    Yes. looking at it again I think you are right.

  • Ryan Hendry

    The more I hear Doug Beattie speak, the more impressed I get.

    We really need more people of his mindset and outlook in politics in this country.

  • Ryan Hendry

    I honestly think he’s one of the best Unionist politicians in the current crop.

    His brand of confident Unionism, looking forward and openly embracing different ideas is what we should all be aspiring to. His point about the brand of “win/lose politics” really resonates with me.