An Autobiography That Puts The Irish Backstop In Context

By John Bruton, former Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach)

I have just finished reading Seamus Mallon’s autobiography, entitled a “Shared Home Place”.Boris Johnson, or one of his advisors, ought to read it if they wish to get an insight into the concerns that underlie the Irish backstop. They will learn that Brexit, and the Irish peace, are not events in themselves, but processes that will go on for years, and will either deepen or reduce division over generations to come.

 This is not a one off problem to be solved, but a choice between two courses of action that are fundamentally inimical to one another.

As the title of his book implies, Seamus Mallon makes the case that Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland, must come to terms with the fact that they must share their home place with a million or so people (unionists) who see themselves as British, and who do not have, and will never have, an exclusively Irish identity.

The early part of the book deals with the author’s experience growing up, peacefully, as a member of a Catholic minority in the predominantly Protestant town of Market hill in Armagh.

 It then moves to the beginnings of the troubles, and the exclusive way in which local government operated to the benefit of the unionist majority, without regard to the wishes of the nationalist minority.

After a stint in local government, Seamus Mallon later was a member of the 1974 power sharing administration, led by the Unionist Brian Faulkner, and established on the basis of the Sunningdale Agreement between the Irish Taoiseach of the day, Liam Cosgrave and his counterpart, Edward Heath. 

This power sharing Administration was brought down by the Ulster Workers strikers, who objected to the whole idea of power sharing between the  two communities. 

Mallon believes the IRA also felt deeply threatened by power sharing, which may explain why Sinn Fein, despite all the efforts made by others to accommodate them, has so far been unable to work the Good Friday institutions even to this day.

Mallon was SDLP spokesman on Justice in the 1980’s and he made a point of attending all the funerals of victims of politically motivated violence in his area, which was an important, but very difficult, demonstration of his profound sense of fairness and,  of his opposition to all violence. 

The book is very explicit about the murderous collusion between the security forces and Loyalist paramilitaries. He names names.

Mallon deals with the Hume/Adams talks, and makes clear that John Hume did not bring his party along with him in this solo endeavour, a failure that had deep long term consequences. 

As Mallon puts it,

 “peace was being brought about in a way that was bypassing democratic procedures”.

He is critical of Sinn Fein having been allowed into government in Northern Ireland without the IRA first  getting rid of their weapons. 

As he puts it, the IRA, continuing to hold weapons, after the Good Friday Agreement had been ratified in both parts of Ireland, was

“a challenge to the sovereignty of the Irish people”.

This was also my opinion at the time, both as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael. There are some principles that should not be blurred. It took the IRA 11 years to eventually put their arms beyond use, and Mallon says that this

 “led to huge mistrust and misunderstanding”.

 Mallon believes the British and Irish governments should have called the IRA’s bluff much earlier, and claims that it was the Americans who eventually forced the issue of decommissioning.

He gives a good account of the dramatic conclusion to the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, and of Tony Blair’s letter to David Trimble, promising that the process of decommissioning should start “straight away”, a promise Mallon says 

“Blair was either unwilling or unable to keep”.

Mallon understood Trimble’s problem, praises his courage, and believes he was ill used by Tony Blair.

But the artificially prolonged focus on decommissioning kept Sinn Fein as the centre of attention, and thus helped them to supplant the SDLP as the voice of Northern Nationalism. This was an error of historic proportions.

Mallon believes that the Trimble/Mallon( UUP/SDLP) power sharing Administrations  under the Good Friday Agreement achieved more that the Paisley/ McGuinness (DUP/SF) Administrations did. Mallon opposes political violence in all circumstances. 

As he says

“It is a universal lesson that political violence obliterates not only its victims, but all possibility of rational discourse about future political options”

I agree.

 The 1916 to 1923 period in Ireland also taught us that lesson too!

In the latter part of the book, Seamus Mallon talks about the prospects of a united Ireland. 

The Good Friday Agreement allows for referenda to decide the question. It posits a 50% + one vote as being sufficient to bring a united Ireland about. This is a deficiency in the Agreement.

 A united Ireland, imposed on that narrow basis, would be highly unstable. There would be a minority opposed to it that would simply not give up. 

As Mallon puts it

“I believe that if nationalists cannot, over a period of time, persuade a significant number of unionists to accept an Irish unitary state, then that kind of unity is not an option”

I agree.

The Irish and UK governments could find common ground here.

 But the two communities in Northern Ireland must first start talking to one another about what they really need and what they could concede to one another.

 There is no point blaming the politicians.  If the voters chose parties to represent them that are intransigent, then the voters themselves are ultimately responsible for the outcome.

This is something that Boris Johnson has to contemplate as he seeks a way to deal with the Irish backstop.

With compliments of John Bruton former Prime Minister of Ireland