Seamus Mallon speaking att he ceremony in Highlanes Gallery last night when he was awarded the Freedom of Drogheda. Photo: Andy Spearman.
Renowned politician and peacemaker Seamus Mallon has been conferred with the Freedom of Drogheda by the Borough District of Drogheda in recognition of a life devoted to public service, human dignity and advocacy.
Mr Mallon, a former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland and former deputy leader of the SDLP, was presented with the award at a ceremony at the Highlanes Gallery in Drogheda yesterday evening.
Mr Mallon was nominated for the award by Mayor of Drogheda, Councillor Pio Smith who said: “It is very fitting that this acknowledgement is extended to Seamus Mallon in the year that we mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
“Seamus played a huge role in building the peace that has brought great benefits to the whole island, and the border counties in particular. Since he entered political life in 1962, Seamus Mallon is the only politician to have sat in Westminster, Stormont and in the Oireachtas, as a member of Seanad Éireann.
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“In offering the Freedom of Drogheda to Seamus, we applaud and celebrate his life as an implacable opponent of institutionalised discrimination and as a passionate advocate for progress through non-violent means. It is a great honour to Drogheda and its citizens that he chose to accept this award and it was a privilege to present it to him today.”
"Seamus Mallon is a person who has spent his life working to heal wounds, working to overcome injustice and working to create a more fair society. His was a voice that publicly denounced the violence of the bullet and the bomb, the violence of institutions their indifference and their inaction toward their fellow citizens.
"In dark times he somehow helped to preserve the lineaments of hope. Hope is the belief that we can make things better, it is an active virtue and it requires great courage to exercise.
"From the beginning Seamus courageously spoke against alienation and instead focused on how one could view one’s fellow men and women, be they Catholic, Protestant or dissenter as people that share a common goal. As Robert Kennedy said, a people that seek “nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfilment they can” along the way.
"He displayed a commitment to those who may be hostile or uncaring, or who may not reciprocate his action. This was an unselfish act but also an essential engagement that would bear fruit and contribute significantly to peace on our island.
"Recognising the tradition and beliefs of others, which are different to our own, in a manner that was tolerant and respectful enabled people to acknowledge that here was a politician who was trying to understand the opposing view.
"Trying to understand someone who is different to you can be challenging and unending. It is difficult to exercise, because one is cautious, wary of others and indeed fearful of condemnation and rejection. One has to guard against the fearful depiction of the “Other” whom we are encouraged to distrust.
"However, Seamus persevered with an attitude of a common bond toward others and his character is perhaps best documented by the words of his opponents:
"The Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis once said while he disagreed fundamentally with many of Mr Mallon’s views ”he’s truthful, principled and straight as a die, I would trust Seamus Mallon with my life. I wouldn't say that about many other politicians on my own side or the other side.
"Seamus has always lived and continues to live an active and a hopeful life. He offered us hope during our darkest days and continues to offer us hope today. It is a pleasure now to thank Seamus for his active service and to bestow on him the richly deserved honour of the freedom of Drogheda.”
Accepting the award, Seamus Mallon said: “I am greatly humbled by this honour. I am delighted to see the benefits the Good Friday Agreement has brought to Drogheda, to Louth and to the other border counties over the years.”
Mr. Mallon, though old now and slightly stooped, delivered his acceptance speech, without notes, displaying the original fervour for respect and acceptance of others with differing beliefs which is as strong as ever.
He spoke of how important it is to remember the devastating impact the years of violence have had on this island. He recalled, with obvious emotion, atrocities such as the 1976 Kingsmill massacre in which ten protestant textile workers were stopped on their way to work in a van in South Armagh and murdered by the Provisional IRA.
He also spoke ofthe impact of attending to a neighbour in his home village of Markethill in Armagh who had been shot and was dying at the side of the road.
“We must never forget these events but it is more important to look to the future, to provide a society for the next generation that respects and understands our differences” he said.
Conspicuous by their absence at yesterday’s ceremony were the three Sinn Féin members of Drogheda Borough Councillors Joanna Byrne, Kenneth Flood and David Saurin who had voted against honouring Mr. Mallon. Also missing was local Sinn Féin TD, Imelda Munster.
Mallon is the 34th recipient of the Freedom of Drogheda. Previous awardees include President of Ireland Michael D Higgins; former President of Ireland Mary Robinson; SDLP leader John Hume; Fr Iggy O’Donovan, and Pope John Paul II.
Prior to the official awarding of the freedom of Drogheda to Mr. Mallon the deputy Mayor of Drogheda, Councillor Richie Culhane, read the following message from the President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins who was awarded the honour himself in 2015.
As President of Ireland, it gives me great pleasure that one of our most distinguished citizens, Seamus Mallon, will receive the Freedom of Drogheda.
In this, the fifty-first year since the establishment of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, I would like to pay tribute to a politician, activist and Irishman who did so much to shape the struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland, and who dedicated his life to the creation of a shared Ireland capable of accommodating the different cultural legacies, histories and aspirations on our island.
Not only as a leader of the civil rights movement but as an immense moral force for all rights in their fullness and promise, Seamus Mallon demonstrated all of his characteristic courage and tenacity. As a parliamentarian and public representative to Seanad Eireann, Westminster and the Northern Ireland Assembly, he brought both principle and conviction and an analytic ability and strategic acuity rarely matched on this island.
The long period between the collapse of the Sunningdale Agreement and the Downing Street Declaration demanded all of these virtues, and all of us on the island of Ireland owe a debt of gratitude to Seamus Mallon and his colleagues for persevering and never giving up during this time, and for continuing to be a voice for principle and inclusion.
That perseverance would yield the Good Friday Agreement, to which Seamus Mallon has contributed so much, first as one of the key negotiators and then as the first Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive. So, for me as Uachtarán na hÉireann, President of Ireland, it is a real privilege to be part of this tribute to one of the architects of peace on our island.
Seamus Mallon signs Drogheda’s Freedom book on the same page as that of President Michael D. Higgins. Photo: Andy Spearman.