Liz O'Donnell on a new book that pays tribute to John Hume's role in the North.
This collection of essays with a foreword by Bill Clinton about John Hume's life over four decades in politics and peace-making is a timely tribute to the principal architect of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace we now enjoy.
I worked with John for a relatively short period leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. But that period was, in effect, the last and most rewarding period of his long political career. This book fills in earlier parts of his life as a teacher, civil rights activist and campaigner for social justice, and founder of the credit union movement and nationalist MP for Foyle when the Troubles were erupting in his native Derry, right through the turbulent 30 years to 1998.
John ultimately became the authoritative voice of Irish nationalism, having influenced successive British and Irish Governments and US administrations towards a political settlement to end the vexed and bloody conflict in Northern Ireland. Importantly, through his controversial dialogue with Gerry Adams, he was a key mover in persuading the republican movement to abandon armed struggle and embrace democratic politics.
The contributors to this book - Austin Currie, Seán Donlon, Mark Durkan, Marianne Elliott, Cathy Gormley-Heenan, Maurice Hayes, Pat Hume, Brigid Laffan, David McKittrick, Seán O'Huiginn, Éamon Phoenix and Nancy Soderberg - were well chosen for their diversity.
They range from party colleagues in the SDLP to key Irish officials with forensic recall of the backstory of Anglo Irish relations going back to 1968, much of which is revealed here for the first time. Indeed my favourite chapters are those of the senior Irish diplomats Sean Donlon and Sean O'Huiginn, just two of the "galaxy of skills" who worked closely with Hume translating his principles, concepts and language of peace and reconciliation into government policy documents.
At this remove, it seems remarkable that prior to 1965, there was a dearth of diplomatic or governmental attention devoted to Northern Ireland by successive Irish governments. The view was that partition was a British problem for the British to resolve and that to attend to the structural discrimination against nationalists in Northern Ireland would risk cementing or validating partition by highlighting such "peripheral issues", a phrase attributed to the late Frank Aiken. British governments, too, turned a blind eye, wary of upsetting the status quo, however unjust. Hume started to articulate his broad approach to resolve the problem in Northern Ireland by way of newspaper articles in 1964 and by briefing Irish government officials and ministers. He founded the SDLP and helped shape the Sunningdale and Anglo Irish Agreements, which were stepping stones to the Good Friday Agreement.
Three principles underlying his credo were: violence was rejected, there could be no unity without the consent of the Northern Ireland majority and there had to be a recognition that nationalism was a legitimate political belief and that people in Northern Ireland and elsewhere were entitled to advocate and work towards achieving its goals. His "stickability" on these basic tenets, which was an agreed compromise between unionism and nationalism, meant he was teased for his "single transferable speech".
Hume always sought to internationalise the problem of Northern Ireland. He was instrumental in the US becoming an important player and in the establishment of the Ireland Funds. His role as an MP for Foyle and MEP for Northern Ireland enabled him to inform and influence political colleagues at Westminster, Brussels and the United States.
He was a Minister for Commerce in the short-lived "noble experiment" of the Sunningdale power-sharing government, which collapsed due to the intransigence and street power of unionism.
Many contributors wrote of his charisma as a politician, derived from his inner clarity on the validity of his analysis. He used his excellent communication skills and a gift for conceptual thinking at a time of mass media to hone a cogent argument for non-violent conflict resolution.
Unionists found his analysis logically difficult to rebut; but they viewed Hume-speak as the "verbal fog of cunning Irish blether". They distrusted his visionary rhetoric over the years. Indeed, that unionist absence of trust and fear of negotiating away power was a major cause of the delay in reaching agreement.
In 1993, when news emerged of the talks with Adams, which had been going on secretly since 1985, he was vilified by sections of the media. The timing couldn't have been worse. Warrington, Castlerock, Bishopsgate, Shankhill and Greysteel all happened that year. October 1993 was the highest death toll of any month of the conflict since 1976.
A distraught Hume in tears being comforted by a relative at a Greysteel funeral is an indelible image of that dreadful period. Hume was personally shaken by the ferocity of the media assault on him. But he made no apology for persuading and ultimately convincing republicans that the Downing Street Declaration removed any justification for armed struggle.
He persuaded Clinton to grant a visa for Adams to travel to the US, and in August 1994 the first cessation of violence was announced. The rest is history. Despite many false dawns, John's dream of peace and shared government has been achieved.
His wife Pat Hume, a constant support through all his difficult political life, writes of the toll on his health caused by unrelenting stress and overwork and has spoken recently of his illness.
This is a true story of a unique politician, woven from a range of perspectives, not all eulogies. Heroic though he has been, he was no saint. His single-mindedness and hunger for peace made him, in many ways, a loner.
Like other great civil rights leaders, such as King and Mandela, he was blessed with a tough mind and a tender heart; a true peacemaker.
Liz O'Donnell worked with John Hume during her time as Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs between 1997 and 2002. She was among the representatives of the Irish Government at the multi-party talks at Stormont that culminated in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998