Bond Street was a Protestant and Loyalist heartland which celebrated its historical totems with vigour. Growing up in the Waterside area of Derry, I can share and empathise with Seamus Mallon’s memories of his childhood. Our neighbours and the majority of my friends were not Catholics but we enjoyed, without rancour, many of the simple joys of childhood. The Twelfth of August was colourfully celebrated with bunting and a gaudy arch. Like Mallon, we recognised that we were not quite part of that tradition but had no difficulty with others enjoying their moment.
Mallon’s is a deeply, personal memoir, demonstrating a measure of impartiality , a rare feature in Northern Irish politicians. While he displays an affection for the Protestant and Unionist community that he lived with in Markethill, he does not baulk from criticism of the bigoted , sectarian, political stance of their leaders and he harbours a particular distaste for the behaviour of Ian Paisley.
I left Ireland in 1971 and so was absent for many of the events that are recounted in the book; let’s assess Mallon’s writing , therefore, for its impact on the outsider. Does it add to an understanding of the context ? Television is the principal medium of portraying the Six Counties to those outside of the island of Ireland. Both print and broadcast outlets have their own agenda , heavily influenced by Whitehall and the MOD; Mallon goes some way to colour in the blanks with remarkable fairness. His distaste for violence is shared by the huge majority of people in Ireland and he never masks it. Attending funerals and visiting the homes of Protestant neighbours , are indicators of his essential decency and humanitarianism ; Mallon committed himself to attending the funerals of all victims of sectarian and terrorist violence in his constituency ; he is made welcome on most occasions and to feel the reverse on others. In Derry terms, I think of Joanne Mathers, Geoff Agate and Patsy Gillespie – all innocent bystanders, murdered treacherously. Mallon deals at length with the treachery of the RUC, the British Army and the ‘Glenane Gang’, a lot of this will shock readers , unfamiliar with the complex web of horror which comprised much of the war.
John Hume is widely admired across Scotland as the intellectual and reasoned voice of Irish nationalism. Mallon is generous in praise of his leadership and courage , comparing it to that of Parnell and O’Connell. However, it is clear to this reader that Hume ‘s actions were not always viewed by SDLP members as in the best, political interests of the Party and interpersonal differences were evident, particularly with his anguished deputy.
In a DRB review, Derryman, Ian Doherty, asserts that Mallon’s view of the North’s future are subjects for a separate book. I cannot agree as the detail , already provided, surely entitles the experienced politician and former Deputy First Minister to express considered opinions in the context of all the preceding chapters. Readers here, traumatised by three years of Brexit, will identify positively with his reasoning on the implications of a narrow, YES majority in a Border Poll on re-unification.
From this perspective, the book will be read by many and seen as a scholarly account by a decent, learned and intelligent man who stuck to core beliefs in his own community and in the wider, anguished hotbed of Irish politics. The ability to reach out to others is not necessarily instinctive ; it is learned and practised behaviour. Throughout ‘A Shared Home Place ‘ , we glimpse an authentic commentary on the events in the Six Counties from the Civil Rights period up to the present and the role of Armagh born , Mallon, in them.
It merits a place on the bookshelf of those seeking an insider’s view of the North.