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Colum Eastwood: We live in the Ireland that John Hume imagined - an island at peace

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood pays tribute to John Hume and asks what the peacemaker would have made of the events of 2020.

Image: PA

THIS HAS BEEN an incredibly difficult year for people and families the length and breadth of our island. We have all shared in immense sacrifices to protect our friends, family and neighbours in the face of a pandemic which has taken a terrible toll on us all.

It has been a particularly difficult year for the SDLP family. The death of Seamus Mallon in January and John Hume in July represented the loss of two of 20th century Ireland’s most significant and consequential political figures.

It has been an immense source of comfort to all of us that the loss of the architects of peace in Ireland was felt far beyond their own communities in Markethill and Derry, and far beyond our party.

These were moments of mourning, and solemn reflection, for our whole island. That is an enduring testament to their lives’ work and the special place that each holds in Ireland’s memory.


Hume, in particular, will always find a home amongst the pantheon of great Irish leaders and it is only right and natural that he is now spoken of in the same breath as O’Connell and Parnell.

humemallon-no10 The SDLP lost Hume (left) and Mallon this year. Source: PA

It is important that John’s endeavours are fully appreciated in terms of their sheer scale – his impact and legacy extends well beyond one lifetime and well beyond the confines of Northern Ireland.

His life’s work brought to an end the seemingly intractable historical arc of bitter conflict between the neighbouring islands of Britain and Ireland.

After some 800 years which inflicted so much hurt and harm on all our peoples, it is John Hume who will now be remembered as the great healer of that history. For all of these reasons and more, John Hume truly was Ireland’s greatest.

Through the power of John’s truly European imagination, through the depth of his language, he proved that solutions and partnerships were possible and that even the greatest obstacles could be overcome.

A trajectory towards peace

The three strands of relationships, amongst and between the islands of Britain and Ireland, remains a template of genuine genius and, if utilised, its structures and original ethos still hold the potential to guide us through and beyond the turbulence of our political present.

As part of his single transferrable speech, John often mentioned one of his early visits to the European Parliament.

On a walk across the Pont de l’Europe, a bridge that connects Strasbourg in France and Kehl in Germany, he stopped and thought about the decades of bloodshed and millions of lives that had been lost in wars between the people of Europe.

And he mused that had he stood in that spot 30 years earlier with a vision for a European continent at peace, working together in the substantial common interests of the people of all its nations – he might have been sent to see a psychiatrist. But it happened. And it became a central pillar of his vision for peace in Ireland.

What would John say now?

As we approach the end of the transition period, I have no doubt that John would have been heartbroken that our people and our peace have been relegated to a secondary consideration in a game that the British Government is playing with Europe.

He understood that our relationship with Europe was a powerful reminder of the potential of reconciliation between communities in conflict but it also provided a path to greater economic prosperity.

John wanted us to wage war on poverty and want, to reach out to the marginalised and the dispossessed, and that by setting ourselves to the challenge of creating a fairer, more equal society, that we would undo decades of mistrust between our people. All of that is jeopardised by the situation we find ourselves in.

Hume once summed up his political philosophy in saying, ‘I never thought in terms of being a leader. I thought very simply in terms of helping people.’ The simplicity of that statement remains a powerful insight into the patriotic devotion that came to define the man. It’s a philosophy that we should all recommit ourselves to now.

It is no exaggeration to say that each and every one of us now live in the Ireland John imagined – an island at peace and free to decide its own destiny. We were given the tools to create a new society – one that addresses the legacy of our past but is unbound from the politics of conflict.

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A new Ireland that takes on the big challenges of a new century. That task, to fulfil Hume’s ambitions for our island and set out our own vision for the future, now falls to our generation of leaders. That’s our shared responsibility and we’re committed to putting in the hard yards to make it happen.

Colum Eastwood is MP for Foyle and leader of the SDLP. Find him on Twitter.

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