Comment Opinion & Features

A paragon of the old left

Seamus Mallon (right) with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in Belfast, December 2000 (Getty)

What many Catholics really miss in the current election is something like the Labour Party as it once was: caring about working people, the unemployed, the homeless and the poor, but also supportive of the family, the community and pro-life.

Such a type of politician is the now retired Seamus Mallon, one of the most prominent political figures in Northern Ireland, and deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). His memoir, published this year, A Shared Home Place (written with the journalist Andy Pollak), is a well-told reflection of life in Northern Ireland over the course of his lifetime (he’s 83). His outlook is Catholic, humane, tolerant, and strongly committed to peace and justice.

Growing up in Markethill, Co Armagh, he knew his Protestant neighbours well, and thus brings to his account an understanding of his political opponents, the Ulster Unionists – while campaigning to reform the unjust regime of monopoly Ulster Unionism. Markethill was the kind of small community where, when the Protestants went off on their Orange parades in July, the Catholic farmers would milk the cows for the absent Orangemen.

Mallon lucidly describes the unfolding of the Troubles and the many tragedies involved. All sides – the IRA, the loyalist terrorists and British soldiers too – took innocent lives, including those of children. He focuses on the individual circumstances – which he often knows intimately – and puts these events in the context of grieving families and their stories. He also shows how historical reviews can acknowledge these wrongs.

He sought to bring to Westminster his consistent values: moderate left-of-centre politics, constructive cross-community relations, peace and justice. At Westminster he was on friendly terms with the Ulster Unionist Ken Maginnis, as well as finding support from many Labour and trade union colleagues.

Mallon’s memoir is one of the most rewarding books I read this year and it explains the Irish Troubles in terms of human experience as well as illuminating the politics involved. I wish we had more like him today.

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Back in the 1930s, both Anglican and Catholic clerics deplored the treatment of divorce in Hollywood films, which they thought too frivolous, singling out the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical The Gay Divorcee. They might be very surprised if they saw Hollywood’s approach to divorce today.

Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, is a contemporary take on marriage breakdown and divorce. The movie opens with the couple, Charlie and Nicole, recounting the many attributes they really like and respect in one another. Each seems to have a loving and appreciative sense of their “other half”. But soon enough, they’re in marriage mediation therapy. And then, somehow, they’re in the grip of divorce lawyers who are grasping, cynical and manipulative characters who talk big bucks and seem bent on denigrating their adversary’s case (with a tug-of-love effect on the couple’s child).

The core conflict in the marriage relates to location, and of separate, competitive careers. He wants to live and work in New York, while she wants to live and work (alongside her zany family) in Los
Angeles. The concept of “two in one flesh” is broken apart by claims to “a separate life” and personal autonomy.

It isn’t, it seems, part of the modern compact that marriage may involve some sacrifice of the self. Yet it doesn’t have to be a permanent self-sacrifice. One spouse may be giving more and getting less in one phase of the relationship, but time often changes the balance, and roles reverse. There are tears and anger, and some black comedy too, in Marriage Story. But its serious theme is a long way from The Gay Divorcee.

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The Royal Mail’s Christmas stamps this year actually have a Christian theme – and genuinely artistic too.

The first-class stamp features a warm, red-hued Madonna and Child in an African setting; there’s a rich-blue night angel for second class and an evocative desert scene for European postage. We’re all sending fewer Christmas cards, since texts and emails are easier and cheaper. But a card is always appreciated and these stamps are a pleasure to look at.

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4. A Shared Home Place is published by the Lilliput Press, Dublin and available on Amazon for £12.60. It can also be ordered through bookshops