Esther McCarthy speaks to film director and producer Maurice Fitzpatrick about his documentary on Northern Ireland peace campaigner John Hume

RISING from the riot-devastated streets of Northern Ireland to navigate and negotiate peace in the North, John Hume has long been a beloved public figure. He was voted Ireland’s Greatest in a public poll carried out by RTÉ in 2010.

Now a new documentary about Hume examines how his engagement with the US was a major catalyst in the journey to securing peace in Northern Ireland. It will screen at this year’s Cork Film Festival.

Featuring contributions from Bill Clinton, John Major and Tony Blair, In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America depicts the extraordinary work carried out by Hume to galvanise and leverage US support.

For director and producer Maurice Fitzpatrick, conversing with the US proved to be a valuable key to positive change.

“I picked the angle of the United States for a couple of reasons,” Fitzpatrick says. “One, it hasn’t really been told before, that story. It’s been largely overlooked. And secondly my belief that — and I make this clear in the book I’ve just written as well — my fundamental belief is that by bringing in the United States, Hume had suddenly reconfigured the power balance between Britain and Ireland. And at telling moments, when he could bring that power to bear, he could bring the British to the negotiating table. And that was a very new reality — Tony Blair makes that admission — it was a very new thing for British politicians to have to confront.

“A very educated and organised Irish lobby in the United States Congress, was in turn making it clear to the White House, through a succession of presidents from Carter through to Reagan and Clinton, that this was a priority for the American people.

“I wanted to get his story right in such a way that people could access it, maybe people who didn’t know so much are still able to watch the film and learn a lot about the whole span of the history of The Troubles.”

As well as very eminent contributors who were involved in the peace process, the film features extraordinary archive footage of Hume animatedly campaigning for peace on the streets as part of the civil rights movement. Indeed, Clinton describes Hume as a Martin Luther King-type figure early in the film.

“I think that is the essence of what President Clinton is describing there, that Martin Luther King did marry the roles of teacher, of leader of people on the streets, but also had the political acumen to perform at the highest levels. He had a great combination of all of those things, and so did John Hume,” says Fitzpatrick.

“I was determined to illustrate for people when Bill Clinton speaks of John Hume and the (Martin Luther) King of the Irish conflict in the film, to show exactly how that was and why that was. He was rightly known as a parliamentary politician,” says Fitzpatrick.

“But the activity he conducted and led, on the streets of Derry, and indeed other parts of the North, all of that was part of his whole approach to a new politics. And I thought it was very important to get archive materials that reflected that. But also that reflected his passion and determination to forge a new society in the North.

“I spent a lot of time sifting through archives. There are a lot of clear linkages of what was happening in the North, a chain of cause and effect and how the North was becoming extremely dangerous from the point of view of someone who would lead a campaign of civil disobedience.”

Mr Hume in conversation with former US President Bill Clinton.
Mr Hume in conversation with former US President Bill Clinton.

The archive footage brings home the sense of urgency of the time, but also reminds us that those involved had no idea how circumstances would impact on them or their communities. Hume was fearful of the march that would become Bloody Sunday, for example.

“He didn’t know with certainty what the outcome would be but he had the instinct to pull back from the march that become the Bloody Sunday march. He made it clear that he wasn’t going to march, he wasn’t going to lead, and his instincts emerge in the film a number of times. Bill Clinton talks of how he trusted Hume’s instincts. He had that intellectual capacity, certainly, to analyse the situation, analyse the history of Northern Ireland, but also, his instincts were very sound as well,” says the filmmaker.

“I think on the issue of Bloody Sunday, his instinct that it was very dangerous for people was of course vindicated, tragically.”

Fitzpatrick says that a widespread respect for and admiration of Hume and his legacy was helpful in terms of getting the support of prolific contributors and accessing research and footage. Liam Neeson got on board, lending his voice to the project in voice-over scenes.

“I didn’t know Liam Neeson before making this documentary. His voice and his whole identity I think is so clearly appropriate to this film. When he agreed to do so I was delighted. He was a wonderful man, very professional, very very good at voice-overs. He was the ultimate pro and took it very seriously.”

He is glad that history has been justifiably kind to Hume and that his efforts and achievements have been so widely recognised and celebrated.

“People who may have been sceptical, may have been antagonistic of John Hume back in the day, are today much more apt to acknowledge the role he played much more. The kind of approach he had to politics later became the approach of many others.”

John Hume campaigned for peace as part of the civil rights movement.
John Hume campaigned for peace as part of the civil rights movement.

In the case of Bill Clinton, Fitzpatrick feels, the former US president always admired Hume and his efforts to enact positive change. “I don’t think there was ever a moment where he was sceptical. I think he saw in John Hume a really professional politician, a really reliable touchstone and the fact that he had that judgement of Hume, and he became a channel of influence during what became the Good Friday Agreement. That channel of influence became important.”

In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America will screen at Cork Film Festival on November 12. The book of the same name is now in bookshops.

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