■ The greatest Irishman of his time.
John Hume 1937-2020
John Hume, who has died aged 83 after a long, challenging illness, was the greatest Irishman of his time. Indeed, that recognition might easily be extended to name him as the greatest Irishman since The Liberator, Daniel O’Connell. That he, with David Trimble, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998, the Martin Luther King Peace Award in 1999, and the International Gandhi Peace Prize two years later, gives weight, and an undeniable, confirming international perspective to that assessment. By steadfastly clinging to the principles of participatory democracy, social justice, especially education and housing for all, cross-community co-operation, respect and, most of all, non-violence he did more than anyone to build the Ireland, and all its still unrealised opportunities, that we may have come to take for granted.
Though his informed, supportive contemporaries will see his great legacy in the round, some of today’s assessments may not see the back story of his life’s work. They may overlook the Herculean bravery, commitment, and selflessness Hume demonstrated when confronted with everything from hostility to apathy in the three decades before the Good Friday Agreement was made real in April 1998. At this comfortable remove, it is all too easy to forget how very dangerous it was to confront the IRA in Derry, or anywhere in the North, in the 1970s or 1980s, yet that is the path he and his SDLP colleagues chose. They showed great courage too in confronting unionism’s bigotry, a root cause of the North’s dysfunction.
Hume took that mission to America too, where he singlehandedly changed the narrative in a game-changing way. Where once Provo fundraising was the dominant dynamic among many Irish-Americans who should have known better, he enlisted powerful politicians — Tip O’Neill, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Hugh Carey, and Ted Kennedy — as a foil to biased, unchanging British influence in Washington. Ironically, that quartet, all dead now, committed to supporting Hume’s efforts while some Irish political leaders, unnerved by his dialogue with the IRA, waited to see which way the wind would blow. Powerful media voices were equally disingenuous but, like many laggard politicians, they were all too happy to climb on the Hume bandwagon when his efforts, and sacrifice, bore fruit.
That the Good Friday Agreement came 26 years, 3,500 deaths, innumerable broken families and bodies, after Hume outlined his ambitions in the SDLP document ‘Towards a New Ireland’ shows how very difficult it was to achieve the only sustainable outcome. Hume underlined that ambition when he wrote: “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.”
Hume’s representative political career began in February, 1969 when he was elected to Stormont but his 26 years as a member of the European parliament inspired the optimism — and stamina — needed to achieve his objectives. During his time as an MEP, Frenchman Jacques Delors became president of the European Commission while Helmut Kohl, whose brother was killed during the Second World War, served as German chancellor. That they worked together to ensure the reunification of Germany that underpins European stability today showed Hume that nearly anything is possible if noble, honest hope replaces tribalism. That lesson, and not just in an Irish context, seems more pertinent every day.
Hume could not have had such an impact without his wife Pat, who not only supported his public career but helped him through these last difficult years when they faced his dementia. Their relationship was defined by love — as was Hume’s relationship with all communities on this island, the mark of a true, selfless patriot. May he rest, as he lived, in peace.