GROWING up in the company of Sinn Féin supporters, I often heard Seamus Mallon being referred to as a ‘hateful bastard’. Now, I know it’s not very nice talking about a wee old man like that but I’m just saying – that’s all I was told about him. So it was good to be able to see for myself if he was or not.

The panel discussion was chaired by Peter Osborne from the Community Relations Council and consisted of Alliance, Green, SDLP and UUP. The two scarlet pimpernels of politics didn’t send any representatives even though they were invited to attend. Given Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile’s recent social media hissy fit since Seamus Mallon spoke at the event, he would have been an ideal candidate to represent his party. Perhaps next time.

1987 – 2017

Where are we now?

Seamus Mallon, Former Deputy First Minister

SDLP

“Everything has changed but nothing has changed. For the simple reason, it’s nothing to do with policy. It’s the “If themins are for it, we’re agin it” – we don’t realise the damage that’s been done by the them and us mentality. It’s the suffering that binds people. But we’ve become increasingly divided, the recent Westminster election results reflect that.”

Peter Osborne asked him why the agreement hasn’t delivered. He said The Agreement didn’t work because of the two largest parties and blamed the Churches for taking a too softly softly approach to the years of violence. Schools also felt his wrath because they didn’t teach the history of the place, instead pupils relied on learning from the inside of communities.

He said we have to start looking at a political process not from a structural point of view but what way we deal with the problems. He finished with the comment Sinn Féin supporters have taken most offence with, claiming that in twelve years of power, both Sinn Féin and the DUP have not produced one scrap of proposals on how we can live better together.

Finishing with a story about being in a bar and overhearing someone saying about him “What’s that fucker doing in here, does he not know this is a Protestant bar”. This, he says is the problem and we need to tackle it and learn how to live together.

Doug Beattie, MLA

UUP

He is an ex soldier who served in the Royal Irish Regiment. During the 1970’s and 80’s he was deployed to South Armagh and Fermanagh. He recalled it being a time when people were being strapped to bombs. Northern Ireland was an ultra violent place, he said.

He was living in England when the Belfast Agreement was drafted. During a telephone conversation with his father, he was told that he could never return home to live here because of his career. His father advised him to vote in favour. They knew that there would be a lot of hurt by voting for it but many more people would suffer if they didn’t.

He said there’s been a peace but an uneasy peace and that we could never go back to the bad days of Gibraltar, Milltown and the Corporals.

Asked why the Belfast Agreement hasn’t delivered, he said that legacy hasn’t been addressed. It’s now a tool for one community to bash the other via the two main parties.

Peter Osborne interrupted and said that legacy was ignored by the SDLP and UUP when they were in power. Saying that Irish language nor educational apartheid was addressed and that we need change.

Naomi Long, MLA

Alliance Party

She grew up in a loyalist neighbourhood and realised how diverse Belfast was when she was studying Civil Engineering at Queen’s University. She said that where there are differences, people will divide. The Belfast of today is now unrecognisable. It’s more vibrant and the place to be but there’s the same bitterness and division. She said the political process treated the symptoms but did not kill the disease of sectarianism, we just tried to accommodate it.

Steven Agnew, MLA

Green Party NI

He also grew up in a loyalist neighbourhood and says his first memory was as a child and sitting at the window waiting for his Mum to return home from working in Belfast City Centre. If she was late, he prayed for her to come back safe. He was part of the generation of hopeful eighteen-year- olds who went to the concert in the Waterfront when John Hume and David Trimble shook hands. He recalls being full of hope for a future where his children wouldn’t have to worry about him coming home. The Green party now has two MLA’s and he says they are going to keep doing what they’re doing. The Good Friday Agreement was the people’s dream, St Andrews changed it and the people didn’t ask for that. He spoke highly about the Citizens Assembly, saying that we should have one but there’s deals being done behind closed doors and they’re not representative of citizens here.

Questions from the audience

A few questions were from ‘Ask Holes’ – you know the type of people that love the opportunity to talk about themselves for no reason and waste everyone’s time with stupid questions? These people annoy me.

There were two good questions that were answered well.

How do you grapple with the divide?

Naomi Long described the division as two tectonic plates. Both sides are rubbing together and there’s a bit of friction but if one side doesn’t give, there’s an earthquake.

What do you do with the legacy you have inherited?

Steven Agnew said that symbolically – to reach twenty years of the assembly with no assembly would be heart breaking. He says the responsibility lies at the door of the DUP, Sinn Féin and the Secretary of State who should be doing more.

Doug Beattie said we need to have a government with an opposition so that there is accountability. He thinks Mike Nesbitt was brave as he tried to make it less like a sectarian headcount. He finished with “We stood on the shoulders of great men in 1998”

Steven Agnew interjected “And women”. He was applauded.

So thirty years on, do I think Seamus Mallon is a hateful bastard? No. I think he’s a good politician and the problem was that he was feared because he was so good at putting his point across and winning people over.

There’s still that lingering butt hurt from his ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’ barb and he appears to be the king of sound bites. As an ex teacher, he has that demeanour where he can make someone shut up just by looking at them. So it would explain why nobody from the two main parties wanted to face him.

Still wouldn’t vote for them like…

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