Civil rights leader worked hard to change view in the US of Ir­ish con­flict

Irish Independent - - News | John Hume: 1937-2020 - John Down­ing

AP­PRO­PRI­ATELY enough, it all be­gan with a credit union loan. It was 1972 and the North was en­dur­ing ter­ri­ble may­hem, in­clud­ing the killing of 14 in­no­cent peo­ple by Bri­tish sol­diers in Derry.

John Hume, a charis­matic civil rights leader from Derry, had big ideas about a way out of this mur­der­ous mess the coun­try was in. But he had no money.

He and his wife, Pat, had five chil­dren and all were en­tirely de­pen­dent on her teacher’s salary.

Sud­denly, he got an in­vi­ta­tion to meet one of the most in­flu­en­tial Ir­ish-Amer­i­cans, Se­na­tor Ted Kennedy, at the Ir­ish Em­bassy in Bonn.

The credit union loan, aptly for a man who had cham­pi­oned the foun­da­tion of those peo­ple’s banks all over Ire­land, cov­ered the flight and a ho­tel room. And hap­pily the meet­ing was a huge suc­cess.

Ted Kennedy be­lieved John Hume had the for­mula which could un­lock the con­flict in the North, and he was pre­pared to use his in­flu­ence in Wash­ing­ton to put the case to Bri­tain.

The story is well told in the doc­u­men­tary film ‘John Hume in Amer­ica’. The doc­u­men­tary drew in a huge range of char­ac­ters who were at the heart of it all over almost 40 years.

Con­trib­u­tors in­cluded two US pres­i­dents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clin­ton; two Bri­tish prime min­is­ters, John Ma­jor and Tony Blair; the Amer­i­can me­di­a­tor Ge­orge Mitchell and for­mer Taoiseach Ber­tie Ah­ern.

There was also a host of for­mer Ir­ish diplo­mats whose un­sung skills proved vi­tal in the whole 30-year-long se­ries of in­ter­linked projects.

John Hume’s mes­sage was de­cep­tively sim­ple: noth­ing would be achieved by vi­o­lence.

The peo­ple of Ire­land were di­vided – it was not about two pieces of turf. Res­o­lu­tion must be­gin in the North and the key to any change was the prin­ci­ple of con­sent.

In Amer­ica, pro­mot­ing this mes­sage faced two po­tent en­e­mies.

One en­emy was Ir­ishAmer­i­cans’ un­think­ing IRA sup­port, via the “money jar on the bar”.

The other, more pow­er­ful, en­emy was ret­i­cence by Wash­ing­ton’s po­lit­i­cal elite, who saw North­ern Ire­land’s prob­lems as an in­ter­nal UK mat­ter, and not worth of­fend­ing Lon­don by in­ter­fer­ing in.

John Hume set out to change the Wash­ing­ton elite’s view of North­ern Ire­land as a more ur­gent but achiev­able goal.

Chang­ing grass-roots Ir­ishAmer­ica would have to wait.

Rel­a­tively quickly he suc­ceeded by per­suad­ing not just Ted Kennedy, but a host of oth­ers in­clud­ing the leg­endary Tip O’Neill, as speaker of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, the sec­ond most pow­er­ful politician in the US.

To para­phrase Hume’s long-time col­league, the late Séa­mus Mal­lon, John Hume went to where power was and sought to use all his own per­sua­sive pow­ers to in­flu­ence those with that power. Over a tireless po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, he suc­cess­fully sold this self-pro­claimed “single trans­fer­able speech” in Dublin, Wash­ing­ton, Lon­don, and Brus­sels.

Even­tu­ally he sold it, al­beit very be­lat­edly, to Sinn Féin and the IRA.

There is an in­ter­est­ing con­tri­bu­tion in the film from Gerry Adams, who ad­mits they “wasted years”. He does not add that they also wasted thou­sands of lives.

John Hume him­self was too ill to take part in the mak­ing of that 2018 film. But it is re­plete with footage of his mem­o­rable com­ments and as­sess­ments.

Very strik­ing is his de­fence of the hugely con­tro­ver­sial “Hume-Adams di­a­logue” in

Ted Kennedy be­lieved Hume had the for­mula to un­lock the con­flict in the North, and he was ready to use his in­flu­ence to put the case to Bri­tain

the early 1990s, in­sist­ing he was do­ing it to help save lives and it was no dis­re­spect to IRA vic­tims.

There are many other evoca­tive mo­ments, not least Hume’s lament for the dead hunger striker Bobby Sands, whom he saw as a pawn of both Bri­tish and IRA pro­pa­ganda.

It was praise in­deed to hear the Demo­cratic Union­ist Party MP Ge­of­frey Don­ald­son ad­mit Hume was light years ahead of union­ists in open­ing up US con­tacts.

It was also in­ter­est­ing to note that Mar­garet Thatcher’s close ally Lord McAlpine had said the hard­line Bri­tish prime min­is­ter lamented ever agree­ing the 1985 An­glo Ir­ish Agree­ment. But she said the Amer­i­cans had “made her do it”.

This film is not all up­beat achieve­ments, though there are up­lift­ing mo­ments.

The grim re­al­ity of all the re­verses, the sense­less killing and de­struc­tion, are well chron­i­cled via lots of old footage.

Along­side that is slow po­lit­i­cal progress.

John Hume worked closely with Dublin, es­pe­cially with the Ir­ish diplo­mats.

But he al­ways ar­gued that Dublin gov­ern­ments had never de­fined what they wanted from Ir­ish unity.

This left union­ists to char­ac­terise it as “con­quest of the North by the south”, mak­ing unity a dirty word.

“Ire­land must be one of the few places on earth where peo­ple se­ri­ously sug­gest it is wrong to unite peo­ple,” Hume re­flected.

But for all that, John Hume was no saint.

Séa­mus Mal­lon, who died this past Jan­uary, said he could be a dif­fi­cult per­son, bad at ac­cept­ing crit­i­cism, and prone to solo runs which dis­en­chanted col­leagues.

Yet Mal­lon’s ver­dict was un­equiv­o­cal: “There is a great­ness about his po­lit­i­cal life, what he did, and what he helped to change.

“I would put him in the same breath as Par­nell and Daniel O’Con­nell.”


Time for peace: John Hume along­side Ge­orge Mitchell and Gerry Adams at the JFK Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary in Bos­ton.


Man of in­flu­ence: John Hume and his wife, Pat, greet for­mer US pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton at the Beech Hill Ho­tel, Derry, in 2010.

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