Saturday 21 September 2019

The man of persuasion who changed history

Politics: John Hume In America: From Derry to DC, Maurice Fitzpatrick, Irish Academic Press, hardback, 208 pages, €26.49

Man of vision: John Hume was, perhaps, a leader too large for his SDLP party. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Man of vision: John Hume was, perhaps, a leader too large for his SDLP party. Photo: Steve Humphreys
John Hume In America: From Derry to DC by Maurice Fitzpatrick

Martina Devlin on a new book that advances the case that John Hume's US connections proved to be a game-changer in the Northern conflict.

'Bring back hanging" was one of Margaret Thatcher's tactics for dealing with the Troubles. In 1983, a vote was held at Westminster on reintroducing the death penalty for murder "resulting from acts of terrorism" - the IRA was its target.

That capital-punishment debate in the House of Commons, one of several during her premiership, is an example of how persistently she misunderstood Ireland. Fortunately, John Hume was at his eloquent best, warning: "If the House wants the IRA to win, then hang them."

Thatcher voted in favour of the death penalty, while DUP leader Rev Ian Paisley described it as wholly necessary. By contrast, his SDLP counterpart warned MPs it would increase violence rather than eradicate it: "What is now a disaster in Northern Ireland would, if the death penalty were introduced, become an unmanageable calamity throughout Ireland. There would be many more deaths, both in Britain and Ireland."

Jogging the Tory government's memory about its disastrous handling of the Long Kesh hunger strike two years earlier, Hume went on: "That hatred, the instability and the macabre display at that time are as nothing compared with the reaction that would take place in Ireland if Irish men or women were hanged under British law."

What would have happened to the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six under an execution policy? Fortunately, such a scenario was never put to the test because the majority of MPs agreed with Hume and the motion fell. It is a reminder of how a conviction politician who is a persuasive orator can change the course of history, as Hume undoubtedly did throughout his lengthy career.

His progress from civil rights activist to nationalist leader to international statesman is an example of 'cometh the hour, cometh the man' (or woman). The Derryman, who won a Nobel Peace Price for his unswerving allegiance to non-violent methods, transformed politics on this island. His legacy is the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 - he is one of the primary architects.

This new book, John Hume in America: From Derry to DC, charts his outstanding skills in building alliances and making the case for a just settlement. It also reminds readers of how he earned huge respect and influence internationally in the seats of powers in London, Washington and Europe.

Until the civil-rights movement began in 1968, politics in the Republic ignored the North. Politicians representing the nationalist minority - one third of the population - protested in vain against systemic discrimination, while the unionist majority blocked all reforms. As for Britain, which had allowed the state to be set up with a unionist veto and without protections for nationalists, its political leaders shrugged their shoulders.

Hume changed all that. He devised a constitutional path and showed how it could work. He realised that three sets of relationships needed to be constructed: between the two communities in the North, between North and South and between Ireland and Britain. It sounds obvious today, but he was the first to articulate it and form partnerships that would eventually deliver it.

Hume-speak, as it came to be called, is embedded in the Good Friday Agreement. Respect for difference is at its core. He was often teased about his single transferable speech but his message is an important one: co-operate, there's strength in diversity, spill sweat and not blood.

Hume has been an outstanding political leader, according to biographer Maurice Fitzpatrick, and few could disagree. But he has, perhaps, been a leader too large for his SDLP party.

Much time was spent in Washington, which he rightly identified as pivotal to nudging Britain towards agreeing a solution on the North. Thatcher said privately later that US pressure made her accept the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement - a climbdown from her famous "out, out, out" eruption.

The stoical Seamus Mallon, who was to become Deputy First Minister, remembers that Hume's absences were unsettling for the party he co-founded.

"He went on solo runs which was sometimes very disturbing for other members," the book quotes him as saying, while he also acknowledges that Hume's close work with the White House, Capitol Hill and the EU was pivotal in delivering a solution.

Elsewhere, some in the Republic feared Hume would drag the rest of Ireland into civil war. Conor Cruise O'Brien, who wrote for this newspaper, was a persistent critic.

What I find contradictory about the former government minister's position is that he is characterised as an intellectual, yet he used draconian censorship laws (section 31 of the Broadcasting Act) to impose his case rather than rely on the logic or fluency of his arguments. Hume, by comparison, always operated on the basis of moral argument.

The book, written to coincide with the author's film In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America, at times has a disjointed feel. It can read as if interviews to camera were simply transferred to the page. Yet much of the information is useful, undeniably.

It advances the case that Hume's US connections proved to be a game-changer. He convinced key Irish-American figures, including Speaker Tip O'Neill and Senator Edward Kennedy, that his analysis and solution were the way forward. In turn, they helped him to gain access to the White House under a succession of leaders, from President Carter to President Reagan to President Clinton.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement followed, building a platform for the peace process and winning US investment for the North and border region through the International Fund for Ireland.

It gave Dublin a formal role in the Six Counties for the first time. The Irish Government posted diplomatic representatives to the North, establishing the Maryfield Secretariat (known as the bunker) which could make recommendations to London. Before going, their were fingerprinted, and had their dental records and footprints filed, a grim reminder of the risk taken by the civil servants. If targeted, their remains might be difficult to identify.

After the agreement, Hume embarked on the biggest gamble of his career - dialogue with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. But his view was that if talking saved even one life, he would talk. Even within his own party, he began to be doubted. But despite personal vilification he pressed ahead, and the 1994 IRA ceasefire resulted.

The book includes a thought-provoking quote from Congressman Bruce Morrison: "We all know that violence is wrong, unfortunately sometimes it is effective. Politics is right but it is often ineffective."

With Hume, politics operated highly effectively. And everyone on this island is a beneficiary.

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