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'The Irish conflict's Martin Luther King': John Hume's journey to America

The topic is explored in a new documentary and book.

Source: Galway Film Fleadh/YouTube

JOHN HUME WAS not a loud man – but he was a person whose quiet sense of justice and peace helped propel him throughout his career.

He was also a politician who was willing to go to the seat of power to make sure things got done, as a new book, John Hume in America, details.

Author of the book and a simultaneously-released documentary on the same topic (In The Name Of Peace), Maurice Fitzpatrick, told TheJournal.ie that Hume “saw that by harnessing the political influence of the Irish-America diaspora in Washington it was possible to address the legacy of colonial division in Ireland and to achieve peace”.

In his documentary, dramatic footage from the conflict in Northern Ireland and accounts by Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter as well as figures like Tony Blair and Eamonn McCann give an insight into Hume’s work.

According to Fitzpatrick:

At a time of great world instability, this is a timely film highlighting creative leadership and the need for steady international co-operation.

Sadly, the now 80-year-old John Hume has dementia and was unable to be interviewed.  “It was a loss,” said Fitzpatrick about this. “Somebody put it to me at the outset that you are trying to produce the play of Hamlet without the prince – there is definitely an element of that.”

The documentary looks at how Hume’s meeting with Senator Ted Kennedy in the early 1970s went on to lead him to form relationships with other figures who were pivotal in the Irish-American relationship.

It also examines the role of the ‘four horsemen’ – Senator Kennedy, Tip O’Neill (House of Representatives Speaker), Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Governor Hugh Carey. Hume made representations to them which led to them joining forces to put pressure on the Irish and British governments to work on a peace process.

Primary architect of peace

In his foreward to the book, Senator George Mitchell says that the peace talks that began in Northern Ireland in 1996 “were the product of an effort that spanned decades and involved the British and Irish governments and political leaders from Ireland and Northern Ireland”, but the “primary architect”, he said, was John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

Both the book and film are clearly setting out to readdress people’s view of Hume – and bring him back into focus as a person crucial to the peace process.

Throughout, he’s made out to be a unique man, one who could negotiate with British forces during civil rights marches, who went to the seat of power in the US to try and bring about change in Northern Ireland, and a person whose role in bringing peace to the north has perhaps been forgotten by some.

But it’s not a book that sets out to lionise him either – participants like Eamon McCann are there to point out the moments where they disagreed with Hume’s approach.

“So there are absences but there’s a lot of people who are present,” said Fitzpatrick of the people included in the project. “It was a loss not to have John Hume as a fully participatory principal in the film.” He dealt with it by including shots of Hume walking along the beach with family, ensuring that present-day Hume is not entirely absent. There is also riveting footage of him from during the Troubles.

“And we hear some of his contemporaries commenting on him not always in the most flattering of terms but we have John Hume’s presence, albeit he is not talking,” said Fitzpatrick.  “I didn’t want to make a trite rehearsal of John Hume’s great attributes. And he did have his critics both within his party, certainly within other parties.”

Distrust and criticism

How was Hume seen by people outside of Northern Ireland? “A lot of British politicians would have looked at him with great distrust and in the United States he would have been seen by some of the more hardline politicians as not doing enough,” said Fitzpatrick.

“This is a criticism that echoes to this day – that Hume wasn’t doing enough, that more forthright action was required and different tactics indeed were required,” he added.

Both the documentary and book outline quite how forthright and determined and effective Hume was but that for a lot of people was minimised – it doesn’t suit them to acknowledge he created the four horsemen in the first place, he created the context in which the United States perhaps for the first time could take a position on Northern Ireland which was at orthodoxy with the government in London … This was a seismic achievement.

Fitzpatrick describes it as “quite absurd and mean-spirited to try to minimise that – it’s also very, very unjust for younger generations who want to read the history to have a distorted history like that”.

Indeed, he says the book and film “assert the absolute centrality of John Hume” and he did this ”unblushingly”.

24 Bill Clinton with Pat and John Hume Source: Hume family photo

Fitzpatrick said that Hume was “absolutely cognisant” of how Catholics had been treated in Northern Ireland - and “he had first had experience of it”.

“But he was also extremely logical and clear that the response to this injustice and the disproportionate force that the State could almost exert in response required [people] to out-think, out-smart and out-manoeuvre politically the adversity, be it the unionist monolith of the British state standing behind them or a monolith of both,” he said.

Part of the work of being in America included facing down congressmen “who at no particular cost to them were making speeches of fire and rhetoric and claiming to be advocates for peace and freedom in Northern Ireland through the wrong methods,” he said.

But Hume had that authenticity – he was a leader who was continually assailed from all sides. Bill Clinton said it in the film and book – John just held the line.

Robert Fisk said Hume “was the only politician he’d met who had never told him a lie”, said Fitzpatrick. Fisk belongs to a very small minority of people who John Hume did open up to.

Fitzpatrick described Hume’s judgement as “very shrewd and very absolute”.

“When he found a journalist who he could trust or a fellow diplomat or politician even in another territory he was clear that he would open up and was skilled at creating common cause with people and sharing, just as he was extremely skilled at being taciturn when he didn’t feel that he could trust someone.”

2 John Hume as a young teacher with his class and De Valera.

Fitzpatrick describes it as “ahistorical’ to try and “erase the cause and the trajectory that led up to the final embrace of politics by all sides in the 90s in the north”.

His book and documentary are the first to look at Hume’s journey to America, so he believes they may go some way towards refuting arguments on this side.

In the documentary, Hume is compared to Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King. It’s a comparison that Fitzpatrick agrees with.

“I think that King managed to be a leader on the street, a moral leader in the deep south throughout America as the person who also demanded that his followers take full responsibility for their actions and give proper consideration to the decision they were making in adopting non-violent tactics,” he said.

Also his instincts were to go to the very seat of power in the Oval Office, to negotiate with President Johnson, LBJ, and in that was exactly what Hume’s instincts were as well. At the very beginning – how do I get to the power. That’s where the first instinct was, so he married the leadership on the streets protests with a very sophisticated political strategy and a very comprehensive view of the agency people could have if they mobilised.

8 The first meeting between John Hume and Ted Kennedy. Source: Hume family

Hume was extremely skilled at stewarding marches, said Fitzpatrick. The book and documentary look at the civil rights protest on the Magilligan Strand and how it led to the horrific Bloody Sunday.

“There’s a sarcastic view in Derry – Hume knew how to bring people onto the streets but didn’t know how to bring them off,” said Fitspatric. “It’s a cheap shot – he knew very well how to march people on the street sand the decision to disassociate from the Bloody Sunday march was correct and history will see that he was vindicated in pulling back from that.”

What would Hume think about the ongoing situation in the north, where the DUP and Sinn Féin are still wrangling over powersharing?

“He would be dismayed that there isn’t an ongoing political process but somewhat cheered or at least able to take some succour and sustenance from the fact negotiations are stopping and starting, there is a possibility for negotiation,” said Fitzpatrick.

“If Hume was a practising politician today he would be be sending out clarion calls that this is not a productive approach to a divided society – by contrast here are the constructive [ways]… so I think that’s where he’d be.”

John Hume in America by Maurice Fitzpatrick, published by Irish Academic Press is out now.

Read: ‘Behind the masks’: New digital archive documents Northern Ireland’s history>

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