In the first of a series of profiles of politicians in the north of Ireland, Stephen McBrearty talks to Seamus Mallon of the SDLP (pictured right)
SEAMUS MALLON, representing the Armagh and Newry constituency in Northern Ireland, is one of three Social Democratic and Labour Party MPs at Westminster.
On first meeting with Seamus Mallon you recognise that he is a man dedicated to his principles — principles of justice, economic development, education and health and social concerns. He came into politics formally in 1973 when he stood for the local District Council election in Armagh, but naming a date as 1973 would deny him many years of active political service as far back as the early sixties.
By profession he is a teacher and one who rose to become principal of a primary school. He always saw in his pupils through direct encounter with them a need for social and economic change within his area of Newry and Armagh.
Seamus began to realise that to have any form of political clout worth a dime he needed to understand the politics of Northern Ireland with all its sectarian divides, and he needed to challenge the system as it existed in those early days. This he did!
The SDLP was founded in 1971, and Seamus was involved from its conception. He first stood as a candidate in local council elections for a seat in Mid-Armagh and was elected. His political career from this early involvement with the SDLP in 1971 was the beginning of his journey to becoming a member of parliament 15 years later, and he has become a formidable member of Northern Ireland politics as a result.
When Seamus is questioned on his approach to the House of Commons and his taking of a seat in parliament he would tell you of an overwhelming feeling of triumph in knowing that a Unionist (staunch Protestant) would never represent his constituency of Newry and Armagh again. This he felt was based on an understanding within his constituency that success was possible, and that the Unionist hold could be broken; this gave the people that he represents a sense of belief in themselves.
When Seamus entered Westminster he was one of two SDLP members of Parliament; John Hume and himself were speaking on behalf of the Catholic people of Northern Ireland in the company of 650 elected representatives. He would admit openly that to succeed in any small way as a minority party it is necessary to have a distinct Parliamentary strategy.
There was no point in boring himself or any one else with rhetoric; this comes across very strongly in his maiden speech of February 20 1986. Such a young party, the SDLP are regarded by others and themselves, as a strong political force whose voice is heard in the House of Commons chambers. Seamus sees such attention a small miracle in itself.
When Seamus starts to talk about specific issues in Northern Ireland, issues such as justice, economic development, fair employment, health and social services, housing and education, he is quick to give the party line. He sees justice as the central pivot in Northern Ireland from which a new society will be built — a society which will be just. He feels that as spokesman in Northern Ireland on justice for his party he has to say and do things that may be interpreted as unpopular whether it be speaking out against the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary), UDR (Ulster Defence Regiment) or the British Army.
But he is equally unpopular when he 'denounces' the injustice and brutality of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and its supporters and all others involved in violence. For him they work against the building up of a just society offering equal opportunity to all in Northern Ireland.
There are a lot of people in the province who don't like to be reminded of the horrific things that have happened in the community; sections of the community who do not want any boats rocked at all. Seamus feels that the day that he stops reminding them, because of all political pressure placed on him to maintain his seat, would be the day that he would give up.
The biggest threat to Seamus Mallon's vote in Northern Ireland in his constituency of Newry and Armagh is the threat offered by Sinn Fein — the Republican Party. They hold about a quarter of the votes in this area and they know, like Seamus, that at any time they can reduce his vote: he would then lose his seat with the Nationalist vote split between the SDLP and Sinn Fein and the Unionist Party sneaking in.
So he knows that on sensitive issues as well as practical ones, he must work from his two offices, one in Newry and one in Armagh, to deal with the direct problems that people are encountering day by day. Seamus knows that he needs to solve the problem of the handicapped man and his handicapped wife living in a flat when they should be living in a pensioner's bungalow. And at the same time he knows that he must create an environment whereby work and new employment and new investment is offered by his constituents. The SDLP must be viewed as a positive party who are building up a new Ireland within the confines of the North.
In Northern Ireland there are 18 seats. As elected in 1987 '15' are Unionist (staunch protestant) three Nationalist (SDLP — Catholic ). The Protestant/Catholic ratio within the six counties should be 60/40. So I asked Seamus about this imbalance as evidenced. He responded with two reasons — the demographic structure of Northern Ireland. He exemplified this by pointing out that more than half the land mass of certain areas would be held by a Catholic majority in those constituencies. Yet the biggest percentage of people dwell in and around the towns of Northern Ireland, Belfast and Derry and they, therefore, have many more constituences than the rural areas.
The second reason he offered is that the Armagh, South Tyrone and Mid Ulster constituencies are still returning a Unionist due to the fact that the vote is split between the SDLP and Sinn Fein. He feels that proportional representation is the key to the solving of this imbalance; he would see it as maximising the non violent Catholic vote, and at the same time minimising Sinn Fein's potential to be destructive.
There have been long positive discussions taking place in parliament on this issue already. This would have benefits for Northern Ireland but not so for those parties in mainland politics who would see PR in any Commons election as a dangerous precedent.
Seamus Mallon is a strong character, forceful in all that he has to say. You cannot help but get the feeling when in his company that this man has walked a well-trodden road to reach his present position as MP. Having succeeded in part of his political aspirations, he will now fight tooth and nail for the people he represents. He would like to see a united Ireland, but is realistic in recognising that this is not a short term viable proposition. To reach that goal of having an Ireland where all parties and all sections of the community live in peace and harmony with each other, much work must go into realising the economic potential of Ireland.
I liked Seamus Mallon on meeting him; I might not agree with all his policies or his approach, but his honesty and his dedication to people — people who are in need — and his constituency is admirable.