John Hume – An appreciation


Any fair-minded assessment of John Hume’s life and contribution to the political life of the island of Ireland and its relationship to the United Kingdom would include words like, inimitable, historic among others. Still, perhaps most importantly, it was transformative in its outcome. Growing up in his native city of Derry, he witnessed first-hand the poverty and sense of exclusion from the Northern Ireland State that many in his community felt. He was also the beneficiary, along with a generation of young nationalists, of the Butler Education Act of 1947. This Act gave educational access to many of his peers who then went on to secure third level qualifications and with it, the ability to articulate social and political inequalities as they saw them across Northern Ireland.

His prominence within the civil rights campaign of the late 1960s, including demands for better housing and employment opportunities in his native city, were to become a significant feature of his early political career. Economic attainment and social equality were linked to the creation of a political system that would seek to serve all the people of Northern Ireland. From the very outset, Hume had made it clear that non-violence would be at the centre of his philosophy and methods when it came to challenging the political system of Northern Ireland. For Unionists, this challenge was just another manifestation of what they saw as an internal and ongoing threat to the Northern Ireland state, which they had faced in virtually every decade since its foundation in 1921. A confrontation of sorts was inevitable. What was, however, completely avoidable, was violence in any form and from any quarter. While modest concessions were granted, for many, these changes came too slowly and against a backdrop of resistance by elements of the Stormont Government. Within four years, between 1968 and 1972, Northern Ireland would witness the demise of the civil rights campaign, the deployment of the British Army and the rebirth of a new and more violent IRA, culminating in the prorogation of the Stormont Parliament.

As the violence intensified, not least on the streets of Derry where 13 people were shot and killed by British Paratroopers, Hume pleaded for reason and said that in a divided society violence will only deepen the problem. Irish history, he said, “had thought him that violence had played no part in resolving our difficulties throughout the centuries”.


Barbara Walsh from The Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation pays tribute to John Hume on The Morning Show.

What we had in Ireland was not just divided territory, but rather a divided people and that only through an agreement involving all parties could we begin to find a way forward out of violence and towards a new set of relationships. These relationships though separate, were also interlocking. Irish and British history had yielded us three sets of broken relationships, broken between people within Northern Ireland, between the people of the Island North and South and the age-old antipathy between Britain and Ireland. These relationships could be repaired within the context of a three-stranded approach that would create political and other structures designed to repair these relationships, in circumstances where people worked together in their common interests.

By 1973 Hume’s ideas were gaining significant traction among the Governments in Dublin and London. Towards the end of 1973, the two Governments had come together to create the Sunningdale agreement. This agreement would be the first attempt at putting Hume’s ideas into practice. Power would be shared in Belfast between Unionists and Nationalists, a North-South structure known as the Council of Ireland, would operate a North-South dimension. At the same time, a new Anglo Irish relationship would be created between Dublin and London. While the experiment was short-lived in the early months of 1974, Hume’s interaction with Unionists convinced him that power-sharing could work in the future.

The remainder of the 1970’s created an ever-increasing number of dead and injured as paramilitary organisations engaged each other along with the British Army and RUC. The daily round of bombs and explosions, as well as targeted killings, were a grim reminder to all for the need to create a new political alternative that would negate the use of violence as a method of resolving the conflict. Hume was elected to the European Parliament in 1979 and saw first-hand the working of the European institutions, and in particular, how they had fostered a sense of cooperation among the European states. As he stood on the bridge in Strasbourg between Germany and France, the Germans were still German the French were still French, but they shared a common European identity and worked together to advance its aims. This concept convinced him more than ever that sharing sovereignty and economic advantage, as well as knowledge, had led these states to trust each other and depend on each other. He realised, as they had, that people are only secure together, and insecure standing suspiciously apart.

By the mid-1980’s, John Hume was on a new mission designed to redefine the Irish conflict in a new way, particularly in the minds of Irish nationalists. He was never one to shy away from criticising what many would have described as his own tribe; he believed that the greatest injustice throughout the troubles was the taking of human life. Hume unlike many others could see that it would all stop one day, and there would be a reckoning and the obvious question, “what was all that for?” Through his participation in the New Ireland Forum, John challenged constitutional nationalism to get real about the future and to recognise as he had done that partition was a symptom of division between people and that while people remained divided over their future, no solution to partition would ever be found.

Hume was prepared to challenge the orthodoxy and historical viewpoint that nationalist Ireland simply had to send the British home and Ireland could get on with its own affairs free of British involvement. He posed deep and uncomfortable questions as to who the British in Ireland were and rightly concluded that it was not the British army, but rather a near million Unionists who were British and that they had a paralysing fear of a United Ireland as framed or demanded by the Republican Movement.

By August 1988 the troubles had been raging for twenty years. Despite huge risk personally and politically, Hume began a secret dialogue with Gerry Adams designed to open a seam through which the IRA and the broader republican movement could enter the political arena. In subsequent interviews years later, he admitted that he found himself surprised that the IRA actually believed in what they were doing and that, therefore, if he could identify the reasons for the continuing conflict, he had a chance of getting them to stop. The Hume Adams dialogue as it became known, set down the thinking and the strategic process that led to the Downing Street Declaration. Hume’s ability to persuade Adams on deeply held ideological positions like self-determination and the principle of consent which Republicans saw as a Unionist veto, was beyond doubt, his finest achievement. The fact that he was able to reframe an act of Irish self-determination while having regard to how it was to be expressed, given the enormous fears that Unionists had about a united Ireland, was a significant achievement on his part. Just as he had spoken to and reached new generations of Nationalists in the Republic, including his own SDLP constituency who had been socialised during the troubles, he had now succeeded in convincing the Republican movement that their aspiration to Irish unity was as valid as the Unionist aspiration to unity with Great Britain, but they could pursue it democratically with a guarantee that a British Government would facilitate such a decision. It would be achieved, however, through the force of argument and not an argument for force.

The agreement was signed in Belfast in April 1998, and like all Agreements, it has enjoyed renown and criticism in equal measure. And while it’s true that time will give us perspective and with that will come inevitable critiques of the Good Friday deal, it should not be forgotten that deals of this nature are not designed in laboratories, but rather against the backdrop of violence, hurt, fear, compromise and betrayal.  That was the scale of the challenge that Hume took on and succeeded against the odds.

In those bleak years, Ireland needed what seemed like a miracle to break out of the cycle of violence. Instead, we got a man from Derry. Hume may not have been the miracle, but he certainly performed one, and for his personal courage we and future generations will forever be indebted.