John Hume’s abiding influence was his respect of institutions. Hume recalled his first visit to Strasbourg as a member of the European Parliament in 1979. He went for a walk across the bridge from Strasbourg in France to Kehl in Germany. He stopped in the middle of the bridge and I meditated. “If I’d stood on this bridge 30 years ago, at the end of World War II, and I’d said that’s the last war in the history of Europe, and in 30 years or so these countries will all be totally united, I would have been sent to a psychiatrist.” This meditation informed his belief his native Northern Ireland could be similarly transformed.
Having heard John Hume died on Monday, aged 83, I remembered the only I saw him. It was in my brief time at University College Dublin when I was 17 years old and grappling with a degree I didn’t want to do in a city where I had just moved and had no friends. To fill in the time I joined clubs and watched university debates on any topic and with any guest speaker. Only two remain in my memory. One, the late Dermot Morgan (Father Ted) in hilarious flights of fancy and then John Hume, who was impossibly eloquent and who inspired belief in all sorts of possibilities.
The year was 1981 so Hume would have been 44 years old. By then he had been two years into the role of replacing Gerry Fitt as leader of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party. At the time the SDLP was the North’s main non-Unionist party, and Hume moved heaven and earth to make sure it was defined that way and not as a Catholic or Republican party.
Hume’s quarrel with the Unionist approach was what he called “their Afrikaner mind set”. They held all power to protect themselves with widespread discrimination in housing, in jobs and in voting rights. The worst example of that was the city of Derry where Hume grew up.
Hume wasn’t immediately interested in politics and studied for the priesthood in Maynooth. He eventually settled for a MA and a teaching position back in Derry. Interested in helping people he joined the Derry Credit Union, which in an interview after Hume won the Nobel Peace prize in 1998 he says was the proudest involvement of his life.
Before credit unions, poor people couldn’t borrow from banks and had to resort to loan sharks or pawn shops. Hume helped start the Derry Credit Union in 1960 and became president of the Credit Union League of (All) Ireland by 1964 when he was just 27. It helped poor people manage money and inspired local small business too.
Through his credit union work, Hume realised there was a housing problem too. Several families often lived together in one house in working class districts, and it was very difficult to get a house due to discrimination. Hume helped found a housing association to build houses in the same manner as the credit union, housing 100 families in the first year. When he put in a plan to build 700 houses, local politicians wouldn’t give planning permission because it would upset the voting balance in their gerrymandered system.
This injustice led Hume into the civil rights movement. The leadership of Martin Luther King in the US had a major influence and civil rights soon meant political involvement. He stood for election in the 1969 Northern Irish election. He ran as an independent Nationalist but sought a mandate to found a new political party based on social democratic philosophy.
“We would deal with real politics, with housing, with jobs, with voting rights, and not into flag-waving politics, because in my belief that was a common ground, and if you work common ground together, that that would end the divisions in our society,” Hume said in 1998. His was a winning message and he was elected. Hume and his followers believed the Unionists had every right to protect their identity, but their methodology caused widespread discrimination and was bound to lead to conflict. He wanted to reach agreement with them. The problem was there were others less patient about finding common ground, and the Troubles had started.
A minority within the Nationalist minority had the territorial mindset that it was their land and the Unionists could not stop a united Ireland. Hume’s challenge to that mindset was that only people had rights, not territory. “Without people, even Ireland is only a jungle, and when people are divided, victories are not solutions. When people are divided, the only solution is agreement,” he said. Hume’s father had warned him off extreme republicanism. “You can’t eat flags,” Hume Sr told him.
Nevertheless as the Troubles escalated, Hume had no hesitation in direct dialogue with those organisations engaged in violence. “When I was very severely criticised for doing that I said very clearly ‘Look, given that thousands of British soldiers on our streets haven’t stopped the violence. If I could save one human life by talking to somebody, it’s my duty to do so’. That’s what I said at the time.”
After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, Hume was finally elected as a Westminster MP in 1983 – two years after I saw him speak. Hume said his job was to go to the British and Irish governments to get them to make a joint declaration backing his position on the IRA. That view expressed in the Anglo Irish agreement was that the majority supported British rule but if the majority changes their mind the British will leave.
While the 1985 Downing St agreement was rejected by hardline Unionists and republicans alike, Hume believes it was a crucial starting point to the later Good Friday Agreement and a lasting peace. He was undeterred by the failure and kept talking to the IRA, and Gerry Adams in particular.
He also used the enormous influence of Irish American politicians especially the “four horsemen”, Senator Edward Kennedy, speaker Tip O’Neill, Senator Pat Moynihan and NY governor Hugh Carey. “The four of them had worked very closely together with me in giving strong support to our peace process,” he said. The new president Bill Clinton also put peace in Northern Ireland at the top of his agenda in 1993.
In December 1993, the Joint Declaration on Peace (the Downing Street Declaration) was issued by Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. It called for an end to British “selfish strategic or economic” interest in Northern Ireland, the right for the people of Northern Ireland to decide its future, and the right for the people of all Ireland to solve the issues between North and South by mutual consent. These were all positions Hume advocated.
The mid 1990s was punctuated by ceasefires and resumptions of violence. Spurred on by a new Labour government in London, Hume and Adams issued a joint statement in 1997 about achieving a lasting peace. “There is a heavy onus on both governments, particularly the British, to respond positively and imaginatively, both in terms of the demilitarisation of the situation and particularly in dealing with the issue of prisoners.”
Fixing that last issue was one of the most contentious issues of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. It also called for a devolved, inclusive government, troop reductions, paramilitary decommissioning, provisions for polls on Irish reunification, and civil rights measures and “parity of esteem” for the two communities in Northern Ireland. Despite (or maybe because of) the Omagh bombing atrocity later that year, the peace miraculously held.
Hume and Unionist leader David Trimble were justly rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998. Surprisingly when it came to power sharing, the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon, not Hume, who became deputy to Trimble in the new Northern Ireland Assembly. When he finally resigned the party leadership in 2001, Hume was praised even by his arch-enemy Ian Paisley. Paisley and the other extremist Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein eventually went from demagogues to democrats and took the political success from moderate Unionists and the SDLP.
But Hume could look back on a job well done. By the mediation of the ballot box and not by the brutality of the bullet, he had achieved another miracle of Strasbourg. As the Irish Times said in their obituary, John Hume was the architect of peace. Over 20 years later Northern Ireland is still reaping the rewards of his great work.