Seamus Mallon, who has died aged 83, was deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) in Northern Ireland from 1979 to 2001, and later deputy first minister of Northern Ireland (1998-2001) in the power-sharing executive under David Trimble. He had a burning sense of duty which drove him into political life but equally a sense of loss of what life might have been without Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
With his puritanical intellectual honesty, albeit tempered by a fine sense of humour, he could be difficult to work with, something experienced both by John Hume as leader of the SDLP and Trimble as leader of the Ulster Unionist party (UUP). Hume made SDLP leadership more difficult by often excluding Mallon from decision making.
When, as a result of the Good Friday agreement, Hume and Trimble were jointly awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1998, there were those, himself included, who felt Mallon should have shared the honours.
The son of Jane O’Flaherty and Francis Mallon, he was born in Markethill, a small town in County Armagh. He attended the Abbey Christian Brothers grammar school in nearby Newry, where later his political offices were.
The Mallon family, rooted in Armagh, was old-style republican. Francis, a schoolteacher and an IRA man from the 1920s, had fought in Ireland’s post-partition civil war.
Seamus was a founder member of the SDLP, becoming deputy leader when Hume took over from Gerry Fitt. He was very much a “green’’ nationalist, and with his republican background felt he had further to travel emotionally to become active in the constitutional, anti-violent nationalist SDLP than did Hume, who came from a socialist background in Derry.
The SDLP had natural links with the Dublin government, which helped create it, but the different wings liaised with different Irish parties. Mallon’s instincts were with Fianna Fáil, the party of Eamon de Valera, who created an Irish constitution in 1937. He was close to Charles Haughey, who led Fianna Fáil and was taoiseach four times between 1979 and 1987, alternating in power with Garret FitzGerald, leader of Fine Gael, Hume’s close associate.
Mallon’s relationship with Haughey dated back to 1970, to the Irish arms scandal when Haughey, then finance minister and Neil Blaney, the defence minister, were accused of buying guns to smuggle to the Catholics in the north. The civil rights movement had resulted in attempts by the Northern Ireland Unionist government to end discrimination against Catholics. Protestant extremists were retaliating, fire bombing Catholic homes. Arming the Catholics found favour with the southern electorate, but not the Irish courts. Haughey, Blaney and two others were tried and acquitted but suspicion remained.
Mallon hinted sometimes at knowledge that he chose not to make public. Haughey was the first person to visit Mallon in intensive care in 1980 after the first of his several heart attacks. The following year, when there had been a long period with no constitutional forum in Northern Ireland and its politicians therefore had no paid jobs, Haughey appointed Mallon to the Irish Senate. This however had an unhappy effect in Northern Ireland, where it caused considerable suspicion but also debarred Mallon from the new assembly created in 1982.
Politicians elected to a British institution were not allowed to sit in a foreign parliament, and the Unionist Harold McCusker, MP for Upper Bann, which bordered the Armagh and Newry constituency, took Mallon to the electoral court when Mallon won an assembly seat. McCusker deemed the assembly a British institution and the senate foreign. Mallon did not. McCusker won. The rules were changed as a result – but the debarring meant Mallon spent longer than he might have without a seat.
He was proud of his personal rejection of violence, but equally proud to believe in reunification. He was vitriolic about the Provos and hated the extent to which he had to mask his republicanism to avoid upsetting unionists. He said with bitterness of the Provisional IRA, formed in 1970, that it had usurped his language. “I am a republican and a nationalist but I daren’t say so publicly because everyone will take me for a Provo,” he told me.
In Northern Ireland labels could mean the difference between life and death, and could stop political deals. Once when I was the Guardian’s Belfast correspondent, he accidentally misled me with guidance on “government” plans. I assumed the British government. To him the “government”, unqualified, was always Dublin.
It was only after the Good Friday agreement that he felt able, publicly, to talk of “our country”, meaning the whole island of Ireland. At the SDLP conference in November 1998, he proclaimed his belief, and there was an intake of breath in the hall as he used the term “Northern Ireland”. For 30 years he had used “the north of Ireland” to make his rejection of partition clear.
His rejection of his family’s IRA tradition increased for him the physical danger with which all of the SDLP leadership lived. Armagh, bandit country as it was long known, on the border with Louth and near the IRA stronghold of Dundalk, was rural and close knit. Mallon was intimately known to those of his constituents who joined the IRA and the even more brutal Irish National Liberation Army, which killed the Conservative Northern Ireland spokesman, Airey Neave. When the Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams, brought the IRA into the peace process after 1996, many of these same men broke away to form the Real IRA, responsible for the bombing of Omagh in 1998.
Throughout his political life Mallon lived in Markethill, in a bungalow with big windows, standing on a rise that made it an easy target. Security bosses installed bulletproof double glazing. He said he could not continue in politics if he let the threat upset him. “If they are going to get me, they will. I can’t do what I have to if I live in fear and that glass made me afraid.” Mallon used the glass to make seed frames. In much the same spirit, he continued to smoke and drink in defiance of medical advice.
He had begun his working life as a teacher, qualifying at St Joseph’s College of Education in Belfast and becoming head of St James’ primary school in Markethill. He was drawn into the civil rights movement and politics in 1963 when a Unionist councillor on Armagh district council refused to house the family of a pupil because they were Catholic. He eventually ousted that Unionist, taking his seat on the council.
After the Stormont parliament was suspended in 1972 there was no permanent and paid elected political forum, except for brief periods, in Northern Ireland until 1998, and Northern Ireland had a disproportionately small number of Westminster seats until boundary change in the 1980s. For years its politicians had no salaried employment.
Until he was elected to Westminster in 1986 as MP for Newry and Armagh, Mallon, who worked as an unpaid SDLP spokesman, speaking notably about security force violence and police reform, lived hand to mouth financially. He was many faceted: a fisherman, a golfer, an amateur dramatist, and very gregarious.
At SDLP conferences he played poker all night, gambling with cheques earned from BBC broadcasts. Had politics not beckoned, he felt that he could have been a successful teacher and playwright. He turned down a job as principal of St Catherine’s college in Armagh because the school insisted he abandon politics. In 1966 he married Gertrude Cush, a nurse, and was immeasurably proud of her, his daughter, Orla, a solicitor, and his granddaughter, Lara.
At Westminster, Mallon was SDLP chief spokesman, while Hume, who was an MEP as well as a Westminster MP, was its voice in Brussels. But Mallon never liked the Commons: “I never feel at ease in this place,” he said. He would have preferred a political life in Ireland.
He retired from active politics in 2005, having already resigned as deputy leader of the SDLP, together with Hume, the leader, in 2001. The two men, both founder members of the party and in failing health, resigned in order to let the next generation, led by Mark Durkan, take over.
In his book A Shared Home Place (2019), written with the journalist Andy Pollak, Mallon looked back over his time in politics, regretting that if power sharing had been maintained, thousands of lives could have been saved. He also advocated considerable dialogue before any thought of holding a border poll, for fear of creating a “captured unionist minority inside a state from which they are completely alienated. Does that sound familiar?”
Mallon retired for a while to his second home in Donegal but moved back to Markethill when his wife’s serious arthritis made speedy access to her doctors necessary. In poor health himself, he nonetheless became her full-time carer, seeing it as his duty at the end of a long marriage during which his political career had often left her caring for their home and daughter alone.
Gertrude died in 2016. He is survived by Orla and Lara.
• Seamus Frederick Mallon, politician, born 17 August 1936; died 24 January 2020
• This article was amended on 28 January 2020. An inaccurate reference to Eamon de Valera declaring Ireland a republic in 1945 was deleted.