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Opinion: John Hume gave us the gift of peace, it's our responsibility to protect it

Rights campaigner Emma DeSouza pays tribute to John Hume, the peacemaker, who will be laid to rest today.

Emma DeSouza

LIGHT A CANDLE for peace – how fitting a tribute to the life of John Hume, a giant of a man who believed in peace and reconciliation at a time when such ideas seemed fantastical to some, unimaginable to others, and virtually impossible to most. But not to John. Never to John.

He would not be dissuaded nor distracted from his path, and through his resilience and vision, a lasting pacification was forged – he was our arbitrator, he gave hope to an entire generation that peace was more than a dream, it was possible and it was ours if we only reached through the gloom and grasped.

John’s message was clear – there had to be an agreement, “All conflict is about difference,” he said. “The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace – respect for diversity.” He would relay this message to anyone who would listen through his “single transferable speech”, as it became known.

He repeated the same words time and again, his pleas for peace, reconciliation, and respect until the message cut through. John Hume was the interlocking, and his determination for justice and equality saw interventions from the Irish and United States governments. He convinced not only the people – but the world – that peace was possible in even the least likely of places.

Speaking to a new generation

When the news of John’s passing broke, there was an expected outpouring of sorrow and grief, but there was also an unanticipated awakening – thanks in-part to the marvels of modern technology and social media, but predominantly attributable to Hume’s unifying message.

Almost instantaneously, people from every corner of this island and far beyond collectively honoured and remembered the incredible sacrifices given by those who came before us.

John Hume was a political titan – our leader through the darkest of decades, he left an indelible mark on the lives of many, facilitating the changes in the tide which brought clarity and a sense of self to those who otherwise may never have received such a gift. I count myself among those who felt that mark, and feel its imprint still today, made all the bolder with his passing.

The Good Friday Agreement has become my guiding principle, I’ve turned to it to protect my right to be accepted as Irish as I’ve fought for it in the courts. When facing dissenting views, I turn wholly to this agreement as my blueprint, for outlined within its words there can be found no one community held above another, but rather a guide to the construction of equality, and the building blocks of mutual respect, all as envisaged by John Hume and his fellow architects of the Good Friday Agreement.

I was eleven-years-old when the agreement came in to place – young enough to have grown up believing wholly in its promise. As Lyra McKee would say, I was a peace baby- though maybe closer to a peace toddler.

Equality and respect for all

Peace in Northern Ireland is predicated on the principles of equality, parity of esteem and mutual respect, the Good Friday Agreement marked the beginning, not the end of a healing process.

This peace needs nurtured, protected and invested in, it is something to be proud of. Our peace is one that is lauded worldwide as an example of what is possible, it is a shining light—one that should shine bright.

I look at the life of John Hume and I’m left in admiration and awe. If we are to honour the life of this great man it should be by protecting what he worked for – peace and reconciliation, there is as he would say, more that brings us together than divides us. 

As we say goodbye to a monolith of the civil rights era, as we mourn the loss of our greatest leader we should also reflect, reflect on a life well lived and the life we have today.

There are many peace babies thanks to the courage and steadfast determination of the peacemakers. We have lost many bastions of Justice at a time when we need their guidance. John Hume joins fellow peacemakers, Seamus Mallon and John Lewis, all gone within six months but they have left us a roadmap, they have shown us the way forward. 

Carry the torch

It now falls to the next generation, my generation, to see the work of the Good Friday Agreement complete, our story is not over. Much work remains to heal divisions in this society and to ensure that the future envisaged by John Hume is fully realised.

There will be struggles ahead, we must face them with the spirit of those that came before us. We’ve been given a gift, but it is also a responsibility.

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In the words of John Hume, ‘Ireland is not a romantic dream; it’s a country divided into two powerful traditions. The solution will be found not on victory for either, but on the basis of agreement. The real division is not a line drawn on the map, but in the minds and hearts of its people.’ 

He was a teacher, not just in an academic sense, but he taught us all to understand each other and to work together. He may have had to repeat himself, but that’s what every good teacher does, and we will likely never have a teacher like him again.

Emma DeSouza is a citizens rights campaigner for the Good Friday Agreement and is Vice-Chair & NI spokesperson for VotingRights.ie. She recently successfully challenged the Home Office to assert her right to identify as Irish.

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