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Ireland's peacemaker, John Hume (1937-2020)

The former SDLP leader has died aged 83.

Hume's ideals about peaceful nationalism will remain relevant long after his death.
Hume's ideals about peaceful nationalism will remain relevant long after his death.

ALTHOUGH JOHN HUME was awarded numerous lofty accolades during his life, no number of titles will compare to the lasting legacy he leaves Ireland on his passing.

A man who always put his devotion to what was right above what was best for himself, Hume’s life’s work was given its ultimate return in the Good Friday Agreement he signed 22 years ago. 

Hume had a multitude of qualities that allowed him be a singularly resolute peacemaker during The Troubles but his selflessness was surely the one that shines above all others.

That very same agreement that brought peace to the island arguably cost the party he founded electorally in the years since he stepped back from public life.

This very nobility was clear even in his retirement and in 2010 he was named as Ireland’s Greatest person in a nationwide poll.

Hume was born in Derry in 1937 and like many of his generation his Catholic faith was at the core of his upbringing.

He studied for the priesthood in Maynooth but ultimately returned to his native city to become a teacher after graduating with a degree in French and History.

His career began as an organiser. He founded the first Northern Irish Credit Union and became president of the Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU) while in his twenties.

Throughout the 1960s Hume became a central figure in the city’s Civil Rights Movement as he and others sought fairness in franchise, jobs and housing.

It was a fraught time in which the movement faced violence from the State and militants from various factions became increasingly active.

Hume was literally at the front of tense marches that marked the period and can be seen in a documentary released last year facing paratroopers in the week before Bloody Sunday.

He did not take part in the march on Bloody Sunday itself, fearing the worst after the events of the previous week and advising against it going ahead.

Source: Galway Film Fleadh/YouTube

Hume was first elected as an independent nationalist candidate for the Foyle constituency in 1969 before founding the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) a couple of years later.

As violence exploded in Northern Ireland throughout the 1970s, Hume remained committed to politics and was elected leader of the SDLP and to the European Parliament at the end of the decade.

He was elected as an MP in 1983, a position he held until 2005.

As efforts intensified to find peace in Northern Ireland throughout the 1980s, Hume continued to denounce violence while also beginning dialogue with Gerry Adams, then the leader of Sinn Féin.

The longtime moderate nationalist was criticised by politicians and commentators from both sides of the border for his engagement with Adams, but the Hume-Adams talks as they became known are now seen as a vital step in the peace process.

In the 199os, Hume was the preeminent voice of nationalism in the north and he participated in various peace efforts that sought to find a resolution to the conflict.

When the Provisional IRA called a ceasefire in 1994 and again in 1996, Sinn Féin were allowed to enter the talks process, as were loyalists who had also called a ceasefire.

The ultimate result of these renewed efforts was the Good Friday Agreement, which was secured following a tortuous process at which Hume was at the centre.

When the agreement was passed by a huge majority in the Republic of Ireland, it was opposed by Ian Paisley’s DUP and was passed by a smaller majority in Northern Ireland’s referendum.

It was Hume who took perhaps the largest responsibility in selling the deal, famously appearing with the UUP’s David Trimble on stage with U2′s Bono.

In 1998, he and Trimble were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in securing peace in Ireland.

[image alt="Concert Bono/Trimble/Hume" src="http://cdn.thejournal.ie/media/2018/08/concert-bonotrimblehume-2-630x456.jpg" width="630" height="456" title="" class="alignleft" /end]

When the SDLP entered into power-sharing government with the UUP in 1999, Hume left it to his longtime deputy Seamus Mallon to lead the party in Stormont.

Mallon became Deputy First Minister with Trimble as First Minister and it began the process of Hume retiring from frontline politics.

He stepped down as leader of his party in 2001 and announced his retirement from politics three years later.

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Hume’s retreat from public life was due to a struggle with dementia, something his wife of 58 years spoke publicly about.

Upon his 80th birthday in 2017, Hume received praise from all around the globe.

President Michael D Higgins called him the “moral architect of an inclusive peace process”, and “a man of courage, a committed European and a dedicated and visionary peacemaker”.

Former US President Bill Clinton called him “the Irish conflict’s Martin Luther King”.

As well as the Noble Peace Prize, Hume was also awarded the Ghandi Peace Prize from the Indian Government and a Knighthood from Pope Benedict XVI.


Ulster Hume John Hume at Stormont in 2001. Source: Paul Faith/PA Images

But while Hume’s legacy may appear to be rooted in the past, it is not a stretch to say that his ideals may well influence the future.

At a point in time when a united Ireland is being talked about more seriously than at any point in recent memory, Hume’s belief that it can only be achieved by convincing others of its benefits is perhaps more relevant than ever before.

Hume was convinced that peaceful unity is about more than the border and these principles could be to be crucial if Ireland does indeed begin the path of reuniting north and south.

For those who pursue this ambition, Hume’s own words may well prove prescient:

“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.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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