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Thursday, 15 March, 2001, 11:46 GMT
Seamus Mallon: SDLP deputy leader

By BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent, Martina Purdy

Seamus Mallon forms one half of what has been dubbed the political odd couple.

As deputy first minister, he is partner in government to David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader.

Mr Mallon has had to balance his concern for the community as a whole with his own nationalist aspirations.

He appears to have won the respect of both sides of the divide, if opinion polls are to be believed.

Sharpest mind

Seamus Mallon and David Trimble
The odd couple: Seamus Mallon and David Trimble

He entered politics, like John Hume, through the civil rights campaign.

When Mr Hume rose to SDLP leader in 1979, Mr Mallon became his deputy. And for much of his career, Mr Mallon has had to toil under the other man's shadow.

But, as joint head of the new administration, Mr Mallon has come into his own.

He has long been considered to have one of the sharpest minds in Northern Ireland politics.

But his efforts to govern have been hampered by the instability in the unionist party, the refusal so far of the IRA to decommission weapons, and the ongoing rows over demilitarisation and police reform.

He can appear as green as any Sinn Fein politician on issues such as security

Mr Mallon has taken a leading role in the negotiations to resolve these issues.

Delicate majority

His constituency is Newry and Armagh, where many of the army bases under dispute are situated.

Mr Mallon has held the seat since the 1986 by-election.

He unseated the Ulster Unionist Jim Nicholson, who, along with colleagues had forced the poll by resigning in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

His initial majority was slim - just 2,583. Mr Mallon appears to have benefited from republican votes, as he was regarded as the candidate most able to unseat Mr Nicholson.

Conor Murphy
Challenger: Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy
His tough nationalist stance over the years has helped him retain his position.

In his constituency, any surge in support for Sinn Fein could bring a victory for the unionists - but only if there was a UUP-DUP pact. And both parties are standing.

Paul Berry is standing for the DUP and the UUP has not selected a candidate yet.

His majority at the last Westminister election was almost 5,000.

Although the constituency is largely nationalist, there are enough republican and unionist votes there to unsettle his position - however unlikely that is.

Unionists won around 33% of the vote at the last election. Mr Mallon must ensure that he gets republican support to retain his position.

So far he has managed to do so.

Tough on security

Mr Mallon has tried at times to reach out to unionists - and has been consistent in his condemnation of violence, from whatever quarter.

In the longer term, Sinn Fein has its sights on the seat

But he can appear as green as any Sinn Fein politician on issues such as security.

When he felt betrayed by then Secretary of State Peter Mandelson on the Police Bill last year, Mr Mallon accused him of "political chicanery".

In the longer term, Sinn Fein has its sights on the seat.

Burden of office

The party's candidate Conor Murphy, a member of the Assembly, has increased his profile dramatically in the past few years. Once Mr Mallon retires, Sinn Fein believes it can win Newry and Armagh.

This may have helped influence Mr Mallon's decision to stand again - despite his age, 64, and the burden of office he already carries.

But it is thought Mr Mallon, who enjoys Westminister, is not ready to stand aside.



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