I have always welcomed opportunities to visit and speak in Armagh but tonight is very special. It is rare that you get the chance to pay tribute in person to a genuinely historic figure.
By any measure Seamus Mallon is a great Irishman. In his public life he drew immense strength from the community he grew up in, belonged to and represented. But what made him different was his determination to serve all communities. He showed disdain for tribal and sectarian politics – for politics which saw everything through the lens of getting one over on the other side. He built an unmatched progressive legacy on foundations of absolute integrity and public support.
His was a political career which gave hope in dark times and he retired with the certain knowledge that he had made a real and sustained difference.
He had achieved every office he aspired to and some he took reluctantly. He handed over to a new generation having ensured dramatic progress. To cap it all he was able to watch Armagh beat Kerry and win the All-Ireland.
Seamus Mallon has always lived by the idea that principles only matter when you are willing to act on them, to speak for them and to defend them.
No matter whether it was as an assembly member, a senator, an MP or as Deputy First Minister; whether it was on the streets of Markethill or the state rooms of Downing Street and the White House, Seamus Mallon never wore a mask. He spoke the truth as he saw it and he spoke up for principles which are as important today as they have ever been.
George Orwell once defined political language as “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of substance to pure wind”. You could apply that to the words of many prominent men but it’s just about the direct opposite of how you would describe Seamus Mallon’s words.
If to “Mallon” were ever to enter the dictionary as a verb it would be defined as “to speak the hard political truth without fear or favour”.
That’s why so many of his opponents felt threatened by him and why he stands as a giant beside them.
It’s not enough to look back over a career of such bravery and distinction and simply salute the man and list his achievements. What really matters is to take the time to look at what motivated him – to look at the principles which defined his career.
I believe that there are three core principles which you can see throughout the life and career of Seamus Mallon and which lie at the heart of why we celebrate him today and why we will honour him for many years to come.
First he always held true to the idea that there is a community of interest between all of the people on this island – that we are stronger when we work together. The border which still divides our island is an artificial construct. Economically, socially, culturally and politically is has caused immense harm to all Irish people. However, Seamus Mallon has always shown that the politics of grievance brings no good. He has practiced a positive and an inclusive nationalism – a nationalism which believes in uniting people and finding common ground.
The second principle which has defined Seamus Mallon is his belief that the core duty of politics is to serve the interests of the people. He first entered politics to address the shameful housing conditions of the children he taught in Markethill. At every stage of his career he always pulled people back to the point of what really matters, the welfare of the people. He didn’t want to spend his time tackling opponents. He wanted to tackle deprivation, early-school leaving, bad housing and unemployment. And at every single opportunity he got he pushed others to understand this.
15 years ago this city hosted the first North/South Ministerial Council. Outside the building there were massed-ranks of cameras and journalists and inside there was a sense of the history of the moment. I remember well that in the midst of this Seamus Mallon reminded us all that institutions only mattered if they delivered progress for society.
Thirty years ago he reminded us all that the term republicanism had been debased by the Provisionals and that we had to fight against this. He reminded us that republicanism is something which can only be claimed by those who are genuinely democratic, anti-sectarian and open. Seamus Mallon was and remains a true republican in every one of the real meanings of that word.
The third defining principle of Seamus Mallon’s public life is that you can only build a tolerant and decent society by behaving in a tolerant and decent way.
At a time when those who committed and still honour sectarian and violent acts try to claim the mantle of peacemakers let’s never forget one thing; the real peacemakers in the North of Ireland are those who were never sectarian and never used violence no matter how big the provocation.
Seamus understood that the way to combat bigotry was to show tolerance, the way to deal with intimidation was to ignore it.
There are countless stories in both dramatic and everyday situations of Seamus Mallon showing people of other communities and parties a basic human respect too often missing in politics. No one with a shred of compassion, North or South, who watched the excellent recent RTÉ production on Seamus’ life could have failed to be deeply moved by his account of tending to his neighbour as he lay dying following a terrorist attack.
For him the ‘equality agenda’ was never a party strategy it was a core belief. He didn’t go in search of petty victories he went in search of shared progress.
During tense negotiations and daily business his was always the voice seeking to find a way which didn’t compromise on core principles but actively sought to give opponents a dignified way of moving forward.
This is not to say that Seamus didn’t fight his corner. He helped found and lead the SDLP because of the unique role which only it could play on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland in general and the community he came from in particular.
The SDLP was and remains a party based on rejecting sectarianism. It is the only major party in the North which has an untainted record of serving its community and promoting inclusive democracy. The party of John Hume, Seamus Mallon, Joe Hendron, the late Eddie McGrady and so many other brave and dedicated public servants has never once compromised on its core democratic and progressive principles. It never went into fields waving gun licences, it never intimidated anyone and it never forgot that the public interest is wider than any one group or party.
Tonight, I also know that many of you will be thinking about colleagues who were part of your journey with Seamus and who have passed on. I think of his long time constituency colleague and friend John Fee, who was an example to many in how he stood firm in the face of intimidation. And tonight especially I know that many of you will be thinking of your friend Paul Hoben, who passed away earlier today and who I know would certainly have enjoyed the opportunity to reminisce this evening.
One of the most quoted pieces of poetry in the world is that of Yeats where he wrote “Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…./The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ are full of passionate intensity.”
Here in Northern Ireland, in the midst of the most extreme situation, the centre did hold.
Seamus Mallon and the SDLP were driven by conviction and they never lacked passionate intensity – incidentally two qualities that are alive and well in the person of your Westminster candidate Justin McNulty who, we hope, will regain the historic Newry and Armagh seat on behalf of all the people in this constituency.
It is only because the SDLP made sure that the centre held that the moment ever arrived for what he so memorably and rightly called “a new dispensation”.
All people who live on this island and care for its future owe Seamus Mallon a deep gratitude for his central role in this. It is right and proper that we honour him.
And the obvious point to us is that if we really want to honour Seamus – if we really want to show that we appreciate all that he achieved and all that he represented – then we can’t just do it by attending evenings like this.
The only way to honour him is to show that we remain committed to the ideals he worked for and lived by.
For everyone who believes in the national shared interest of all communities on this island there is an urgent need for voices which work to build bridges.
For those who believe that the purpose of politics is to serve the people there is as much a need as ever for us to speak up on the fundamental issues of education, employment and poverty.
For those who can see that there are too many still committed to sectarian politics, taking the safe option isn’t good enough.
If we can learn one thing from the career of Seamus Mallon it is surely that we do not have to stand on the sidelines as if we can do nothing.
Both North and South, if we are honest, there is a growing disillusionment with politics. People are seeing societies which are becoming more unequal and more divided. The people see politicians travelling the world praising themselves in speeches while ignoring deep problems at home which can and must be tackled.
The people want to be shown that there is an alternative to the extremes. The centre still holds and it is the only way forward.
The career of Seamus Mallon shows us how much can be achieved.
A democrat, progressive in his views, never giving ground to the extremes and always focused on the interests of the people, he is an Irish hero whose name will always shine brightly in our history.