Fergus Finlay: John Hume’s contribution to Irish peace, and to Ireland, unique and unmeasurable

He was the greatest advocate for peace based on mutual respect this country had ever known, writes Fergus Finlay
Fergus Finlay: John Hume’s contribution to Irish peace, and to Ireland, unique and unmeasurable
John Hume at the funeral of former president of Ireland Patrick Hillery on April 16, 2008. Picture: Gareth Chaney

It is perhaps an impertinence to suggest the two words that should be carved largest on John Hume’s headstone, but I’ll do it anyway. 

John Hume wasn’t just a peacemaker. He was the peacemaker. 

He wasn’t just a patriot. He was the embodiment of patriotism. 

For as long as Irish history is written, they are the words that belong under his name. The patriot. The peacemaker.

Others have claimed credit for the work he started, work that without his courage and sacrifice wouldn’t have happened. And he never denied them their share. 

Indeed, I don’t remember that he ever claimed credit for himself anyway. 

But someone said to me recently that it wasn’t enough for some to climb on Hume’s bandwagon, they wanted to try and push him off so they could own it for themselves. 

That was never going to be possible.

Because Hume’s contribution to Irish peace, and to Ireland, was unique and unmeasurable. 

He didn’t want to die for Ireland, he wanted to work for Ireland. He didn’t want to see anyone else die for Ireland, and he often said so. 

But much, much more than that he didn’t want to see anyone kill for Ireland.

Throughout his life, Hume was, to a greater extent than any other living Irish person, the architect of non-violence.

We forget now how fashionable violence was in Ireland back then. Our terrorists were international celebrities. 

Phrases like "armed struggle" and “the ballot box in one hand and the ArmaLite in another” were common currency. 

Millions of pounds and dollars were raised and spent on weapons of destruction. 

The slaughter of innocents was always justified in some fashion because back then we didn’t do “the politics of condemnation”.

So John Hume, despite being the leader of the largest nationalist party in Ireland, was unfashionable. 

When he first went to the US, to seek to develop persuaders for a different approach, part of his task as he saw it was to wean American politics and business away from unthinking support for guns and bombs.

John Hume addresses the open air peace meeting in Derry, Northern Ireland following the violence at the Apperentice Boy Parade in August 1969. Picture: Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images
John Hume addresses the open air peace meeting in Derry, Northern Ireland following the violence at the Apperentice Boy Parade in August 1969. Picture: Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

In those early years, he succeeded in winning key US leaders to a different way because of his conviction and his doggedness.

But he ploughed a lonely furrow for a long time in the process. 

He had the support of a staunch partner in Seamus Mallon, and throughout those early years, he had the backing of successive Irish governments and a host of diplomats. 

But the mountain he climbed then, in the late 1970s and early '80s, would not have been scalable without his persistence.

There were many mountains, and many times when his work involved despair, although he seldom showed it. 

Years later, when the peace process he had initiated had taken root, and intense negotiations were taking place between the two governments about what would become the Downing Street Declaration, the IRA set off a bomb in Frizell’s chip shop on the Shankill Rd. 

Ten people were killed, including the bomber Thomas Begley, whose coffin was subsequently carried by Gerry Adams.

A week later, and in retaliation, three UDA gunmen in balaclavas walked into the Rising Sun bar in the little town of Greysteel, about 14km from Hume’s home in Derry. 

It was the night before Halloween, and one of the gunmen shouted “trick or treat” as he opened fire. 

A few minutes later, seven people lay dead in the bloody carnage that had been created, and more were to die of their wounds. 

Although some were Protestant, the majority were Catholic. They were all Hume’s constituents.

This was by any definition the lowest point of the peace process, the darkest hour before the dawn. 

A sequence of events over a matter of days — the brutal Shankill massacre, the Begley funeral, the terrible murders in Greysteel — had rendered all the work of peace seemingly pointless.

More even than that, there were those who thought that Hume had pandered to a terrorist organisation that was simply never going to stop.

Hume was alone in those days. Because the victims of Greysteel were his constituents, of course he attended their funerals, as he had attended hundreds of others. 

He stood at the back, his head bowed. When he looked up, it was to see the daughter of one of the Greysteel victims confronting him.

Except she had anything but confrontation in mind. 

Instead she pleaded with him not to give up, not to walk away from the process, as many were urging him to do. 

“We’re praying for you to keep going, Mr Hume,” she pleaded. “Don’t let any other family suffer the way mine has.” 

It was, I think, the only time the public had ever seen John Hume cry. 

SDLP leader John Hume is comforted as he weeps at the funerals.
SDLP leader John Hume is comforted as he weeps at the funerals.

It was the nature of the man that he had prepared himself to withstand criticism. 

But he couldn’t stay stoic in the face of solidarity from someone who was suffering so grievously herself.

Six weeks after that moment of desolation in a graveyard near his home, the Downing Street Declaration was signed in London. 

It contained all the key phrases from a long and tortuous dialogue Hume had initiated. 

The declaration led, as he had persuaded everyone it would, to an IRA ceasefire.

On the road to that breakthrough, there were moments when John Hume had to provide cover for timid overtures by Charles Haughey. 

Moments when he had to stay silent when Albert Reynolds had to disavow him, when news of the “Hume Adams” process broke prematurely. 

Moments when he had to swallow hard when John Major said he couldn’t touch a John Hume document because it also had Gerry Adams’ fingerprints on it. 

Moments of political humiliation endured for the sake of progress.

On the road to that breakthrough, there were moments when John Hume endured political humiliation for the sake of progress.
On the road to that breakthrough, there were moments when John Hume endured political humiliation for the sake of progress.

But there was nothing new about any of that. 

The peace process that led to the IRA ultimately putting down their guns happened a quarter of a century into John Hume’s career. 

It was a career that started in peaceful protest, centred on civil rights for nationalists. 

He became the undisputed leader of constitutional nationalism in Ireland, and watched in frustration as the divisions forged by violence drove the two communities of Northern Ireland further and further apart.

In an article he wrote a couple of years ago, the late Seamus Mallon said the foundation of all John Hume’s work for peace was in the core objective of an SDLP document entitled Towards a New Ireland. 

As Mallon put it, that objective was “to bring about a solution where Irish people of different traditions can build institutions of government to provide for lasting peace and stability on this island, and for new harmonious relations with Britain itself". 

Simple, said Mallon, about that document that was written in 1972, but also, he added, the beginning of a lifetime’s work. 

If you want to see the consistency of Hume’s politics and approach over that time, read what he had to say the day the Good Friday Agreement was signed, a quarter of a century later. 

Only on the basis of equality, fairness, and respect for our differences could we begin to heal the deep divisions between our people. This historic agreement enables us, at last, to start the healing process.

The man who might have been a priest or a teacher ended up, more by force of circumstances than anything else, becoming the greatest advocate for peace based on mutual respect this country had ever known. 

No other political leader in history has ever been honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize, the Martin Luther King Jr Nonviolent Peace Prize, and the Ghandi Peace Prize. 

That unique distinction alone surely marks him out.

Of course there were contradictions. Even the greatest of men have their frailties. 

I can remember him in Leinster House, scruffy from days of travel and overwork, attaching himself to anyone who had cigarettes to spare (back in the day when politics was indeed full of smoke-filled rooms), and quickly moving on when the cigarettes ran out. 

I can remember his closest party colleagues almost weeping with frustration at his failure, again and again, to put the organisation of his own party ahead of other needs. 

He could be charming one minute, rude the next, the life and soul of the party when he chose, and other times a picture of the deepest melancholy.

None of that mattered in the end, because Hume was a man who stood against injustice and oppression all of his adult life. But he also stood for things. 

His first campaign was for third-level education in Derry. His last campaign, after retirement, was about poverty in the developing world.

John Hume seen here with his children, Aine (7), Therese (8), Aidan (5), and baby John in September 1969. Picture:  WATFORD/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images
John Hume seen here with his children, Aine (7), Therese (8), Aidan (5), and baby John in September 1969. Picture:  WATFORD/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

When he needed to stand alone, he stood alone. 

No baton charge could shake him in his early days, no political or media attack (remember Eoghan Harris’s clarion call to “cut the cord to John Hume”) could deter him. 

From start to finish, Hume’s outstanding characteristic was his constancy.

The last few years had been difficult for him and for his remarkable wife Pat, another true leader. 

Now that he has died, it seems impossible to sum him up. 

In the same article I quoted earlier, Mallon used Hume’s own words to capture the essence of Hume’s political philosophy: “Ireland is not a romantic dream; it is not a flag; it is 4.5m people divided into two powerful traditions. 

"The solution will be found not on the basis of victory for either, but on the basis of agreement and a partnership between both. 

The real division of Ireland is not a line drawn on the map but in the minds and hearts of its people.

No one has done more to heal that division than John Hume. 

He believed passionately and single-mindedly in what Ireland could become, and spent his entire life trying to bring that about. 

Irish hearts and minds can today be united about one thing at least: We have lost the greatest of our citizens.

John Hume in his own words

Whether it was fellow politicians, terrorists or world leaders, when John Hume spoke, people listened. 

Here are some of his most memorable quotes.

- "I never thought in terms of being a leader. I thought very simply in terms of helping people."

- "When people are divided, the only solution is agreement."

- "I grew up in Derry, of course, and it was... Derry was the worst example of Northern Ireland's discrimination."

- "They believed that Britain was in Ireland defending their own interests, therefore the Irish had the right to use violence to put them out. My argument was that that type of thinking was out of date."

- "Ireland is not a romantic dream; it is not a flag; it is 4.5 million people divided into two powerful traditions. The solution will be found not on the basis of victory for either, but on the basis of agreement and a partnership between both. The real division of Ireland is not a line drawn on the map, but in the minds and hearts of its people."

- "I want to see Ireland as an example to men and women everywhere of what can be achieved by living for ideals, rather than fighting for them, and by viewing each and every person as worthy of respect and honour. I want to see an Ireland of partnership where we wage war on want and poverty, where we reach out to the marginalised and dispossessed, where we build together a future that can be as great as our dreams allow."

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up