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A Tribute to the Irish ‘Titan’ John Hume

Today a territory and a people unite, mourning in the hope that peace will continue to prevail in Ireland.

BARCELONA, SPAIN: Veteran Northern Ireland politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume speaks on the European constitution in the Tribuna Barcelona, in Barcelona 21 January 2005. AFP PHOTO/CESAR RANGEL (Photo credit should read CESAR RANGEL/AFP via Getty Images)

As with so many deaths just now, the funeral of the popular Irish politician John Hume (1937-2020) has been a quiet family affair. Laid to rest at St Eugene’s Cathedral in Derry this Wednesday, there was no state funeral, no large public crowds out to line the route, or international leaders to mourn him while they find the opportunity to do some side-business.

In these times of Covid-19 and social media, the family simply asked people to mark his passing in the Irish tradition by lighting a candle placed at their windows in solidarity with them and to #StayHome. The outpouring of condolences include those who worked with him in forging the peace in Northern Ireland. Tony Blair repeated what he wrote in his autobiography that he was “a titan,” while Bill Clinton recalled Hume as someone whose counsel he could rely on during the peace process.

Hume’s story is an island’s story. Born the first of a family of seven on January 18, 1937, in his grandparents’ Derry home, his father was long-term unemployed and the household relied on his mother’s wages. As common in this part of the world at the time, Hume thought of entering the priesthood. He started seminary training at St Patrick’s College Maynooth, but decided this was a mistake and changed to the secular Maynooth University to earn his BA and MA degrees. He is celebrated as an alumnus through a building in his name (as a lecturer in law at the university I teach in this building) and endowed PhD scholarships.

His education formed his rigorous logic, a desire to help his community, and what he called a “stickability” in getting things done. In 1960, he returned to Derry as a teacher, and married a fellow teacher Pat Hone, with whom he had five children. His wife remained at his side until the end, having been his trusted partner in politics as well as life.

Hume’s route to power was through community activism in the city, also known as Londonderry. His moment of decision to act came around 1966, in reaction to difficulties he faced as chairman of a housing association set up in 1965. Within a year some 100 families were housed in renovated houses, but when planning permission was refused to build new housing he could stand by no longer. Hume put the decision down to gerrymandering, later explaining “Up to that I was totally unpolitical. When it came home to me I went out and protested.” This protest would take him as an independent member to the Stormont parliament in February 1969. The following year he helped found the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a party which still advocates Irish reunification but has since lost support to the republican Sinn Féin party, which has also grown in popularity in the Republic of Ireland.

Ireland’s traditional nationalism says the island forms one people, and division is the fault of the British, primarily meaning the English. Hume represented a different tradition, what has been controversially labelled ‘revisionist nationalism.’ Hume advocated “aggressive non-violence” and unity through consent. He challenged the dogma of a Nationalism and Catholicism joined at the hip, and abhorred the violence that came with the nationalist cause. Hume believed you make peace not with your friends but your enemies. He was a social democrat who argued that the people, not bombs, should decide the future of Northern Ireland. He was also a Europhile, who took inspiration from how France and Germany transformed war into the “European project,” believing that in Northern Ireland the “troubles” could be equally transformed by people’s unity via prosperity.

He did not help organize the event which in January 1972 resulted in 14 people being indiscriminately killed by British paratroopers, and became known as Bloody Sunday. However, he was filmed standing on the city walls pointing down to the Bogside, stating “Many people down there feel now that it’s a united Ireland or nothing.” This was not Hume making a pro-nationalist argument, rather a statement of what was a felt reality for the people of his city. His star rose throughout the 1970s and 1980s, buoyed by support at home and abroad, thanks in part to his personal connections with Dublin, London and the US. In between the 1979 Irish Republican Army (IRA) assassination of Airey Neave, British Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in the precincts of Parliament and the 1984 attempt to assassinate Margret Thatcher and her government, the political process ground on. Hume and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams had won seats at Westminster in 1983, which Hume took up physically but Adams spurned according to party policy. In 1985, Thatcher and Irish Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, stating both governments would formally consult on Northern Ireland, opening up the possibility of a united nation. Hume was a pivotal player in the accord and said he believed in an “agreed Ireland,” later explaining in 1992 that unity means “agreement, not a takeover bid.”

Peace efforts owed a lot to Hume’s relations with Washington, which is well illustrated in a 2017 film ‘In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America.’ Hume was the first major elected politician to make an appeal to Irish-Americans not to give money to the IRA. He said, “Ask yourself whether you would throw a bomb or pull a trigger, for that is what your dollar will do.” The IRA announced on August 31, 1994, an historic ceasefire with “a complete cessation of military operations” after 25 years of bombings and shootings. A symbolic link was made to Adams being granted a visa by Clinton to visit America that same year, but it was Hume who was the more pivotal. Clinton recalled that it was Hume who encouraged him to take ‘a leap of faith’ when the US controversially issued the visa, “He was always above the fray in a way but he sure knew when to get involved.” Clinton explained Hume told him, “I think it’s worth the risk.” The final ceasefire came July 31, 1997.

The last steps towards a political solution exacted a personal toll on Hume’s health, and he spoke openly about his depression. He had been attacked politically from all sides by unionists, Conservative politicians and British officials, and even at times the Dublin elite. He collapsed and was hospitalized. In 1998, all-party negotiations at last produced the Belfast Agreement. Later that year along with the Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, Hume received the Nobel Peace Prize. His health, however, continued to deteriorate over the years, retiring from front-line politics in February 2004. In June of that year the SDLP experienced a collapse with the party losing Hume’s seat, which he had held since the first European Parliament election in 1979.

In retirement Hume was deservedly lauded. He was named a Knight Commander of the Papal Order of St. Gregory the Great by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. He received honorary doctorates from 44 different universities, as well as the Gandhi Peace Prize and the Martin Luther King Award, which along with the Nobel award makes him the only recipient of all three major peace awards. With his death, his name is now established in history and added to the great Irish constitutional nationalists of the 19th-century: Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847) known as The Liberator, and, Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891) leader of the struggle for Irish Home Rule in the late 19th century. Hume was named “Ireland’s Greatest” in a 2010 national public poll. A mural in his home town of Derry pictures Hume with Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela. Sadly, his diagnosed dementia rid Ireland and beyond of the post-office wisdom often dispensed by those who bring about change in their society.

Hume has left behind him an Ireland with remaining sores to be scratched, as shown by the killing of journalist Lyra McKee and the Brexit border disputes. He also leaves behind an island with a balancing act, with the North only just recently having a government after a 590-day closure, and a Republic with a tenuous power-sharing government fighting off the popularity of Sinn Féin in the recent election. Hume said there is no such thing as territory, there are only people, but today a territory and a people unite mourning in the hope that peace will continue to prevail, and if it does this will be in no small way thanks to the Derry-boy John Hume. While old statues may be falling, one suspects there will be one or two new ones deservedly erected soon around the island of Ireland and perhaps even in America.

Dr. David Cowan is an Author and Associate Lecturer in Law, National University of Ireland Maynooth, and a former Visiting Scholar at Boston College. His books include The Coming Economic Implosion of Saudi Arabia: A Behavioral Perspective and Frank H Knight: Prophet of Freedom, both published by Palgrave Macmillan. 

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