Friday 14 December 2018

John Hume - historical legacy assured

  • Politics: John Hume: In His Own Words, Edited by Sean Farren, Four Courts Press, €33.99
  • John Hume in America: From Derry to DC, Maurice Fitzpatrick, Irish Academic Press, €22.99
Peacemaker John Hume is escorted away by a British soldier during a civil rights demonstration in Derry in 1971
Peacemaker John Hume is escorted away by a British soldier during a civil rights demonstration in Derry in 1971

JP O'Malley

In 1985, John Hume, then leader of the SDLP, met Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams in Donegal, where he was blindfolded, bundled into a van and taken to Mayo for a meeting with the IRA, who had agreed to discuss a possible end to the armed struggle.

The paramilitary organisation insisted that the conversation be videotaped. Hume refused. The meeting was over before it had even begun. A breakthrough did arise from that first meeting though: the clandestine Hume-Adams dialogue which followed. Indeed, without this bold step, the Good Friday Agreement might never have been signed a decade later.

Hume had his fair share of enemies. The late Conor Cruise O'Brien was one: consistently trying to portray him as a terrorist sympathiser. But as John Hume: In His Own Words brilliantly demonstrates, Hume was always on the right side of history. Moreover, Hume was consistent in his criticism of the Provos. In an address to the SDLP in 1988 - reproduced in full in the book - Hume outlined how the republican movement during this particularly toxic period of the Troubles had killed twice as many Catholics as loyalists and the British Army had killed.

But Hume also understood that paramilitary organisations have the ability to make civil society break down; and that states need to respond to violence with dialogue, not tit-for-tat retaliation.

"In spite of all the pessimism that is around, I sincerely hope that we will be successful in attaining an objective of bringing an end to all military and violent activity in the northern part of Ireland," Hume wrote to Adams in March 1988.

This letter is all the more remarkable to read today, since we now understand how much Hume was despised by the Provos for his reconciliatory approach to politics: which always sought to replace narrow-minded, flag-waving Irish nationalism with a pluralistic cosmopolitan society.

Sean Farren provides excellent commentary and historical context to the various speeches, parliamentary debates, memos and private letters contained in this highly insightful tome.

There is one speech we read from Westminster in 1983, where Hume persuades the then Conservative government not to reintroduce the death penalty in Northern Ireland for terrorist offences. There is also an emphasis on Hume's enthusiasm for the European Union: an institution he viewed as a role model for how nation states could successfully put aside bitter history, and work together to create wealth and prosperity.

Maurice Fitzpatrick's John Hume in America: From Derry To DC focuses partially on Hume's role as an MEP for over two decades too; particularly how being elected to a European Parliament helped influence Hume's political thinking on the peace process. Primarily though, the book concentrates on Hume's role working with the US Congress and the White House between 1972 and 1998. Hume's informal role as a behind-the-scenes political strategist was always consistent: to elevate the Northern Ireland peace process into the American - and therefore, indirectly, the global - popular and political consciousness.

As Fitzpatrick argues with conviction here, after Bloody Sunday in 1972, Hume understood that Northern Ireland had essentially become a failed state. Civil disobedience and moral arguments could only go so far to get the British government to listen. They didn't. Primarily because political discrimination and sectarianism was unofficially encouraged to justify Northern Ireland's very existence as part of the United Kingdom.

Hume knew the political system was rotten from within and beyond repair, and so began to look to outside power brokers. And where better a place to look than the most powerful country on earth.

By building close political ties with powerful senators and congressmen in the Democratic Party - such as Ted Kennedy and Tip O' Neill - Hume was able to lessen the influence of Britain and the US State Department on the Northern Irish question.

Since all presidents need bi-partisan support from their congress to support other legislation, Hume was able to use Northern Ireland as a massive political bargaining tool over a period of 30 years.

In retrospect, this was a stroke of political genius. Subsequently, this meant the narrative in the mainstream US press changed too over time: 'peace first' replaced nostalgic narratives of Republican violence for the armed struggle.

Hume clearly understood how the mechanics of the US media and corridors of power in Washington worked. And he infiltrated both accordingly to move his agenda of peace and civil rights forward.

This book is an intriguing accompaniment to a documentary which Fitzpatrick has recently made called In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America. The list of interviewees includes former US presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton; former British prime ministers John Major and Tony Blair; Gerry Adams and David Trimble, as well as a host of diplomats, politicos, power brokers, hacks, lobbyists and Washington insiders.

Hume reiterated the same mantra over and over throughout his long career: the political problems of the North were related to simple economics. Cross-community cooperation would naturally happen, following prosperity and stability: as long as cultural differences were respected.

Figures possessing Hume's commitment to social justice really only come along a few times each century. In this respect, we can put him in the same league as two of his political heroes, Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi: both of whom were also committed to political change through non violence. But Hume was no naive, pushover pacifist.

He understood that political change is only possible when you get to know the gatekeepers of power.

Both of these books demonstrate how Hume's most valuable double-sided political asset -a mixture of the common human touch with the gift of a towering intellect-allowed him to understand and deconstruct that power.

Today, Hume's legacy has largely been forgotten in the history of the peace process: as Sinn Fein has stolen the limelight of the nationalist mainstream.

Sadly, Hume now suffers from dementia, and has been absent from public life for a number of years. But his work is done, his historical legacy assured.

More time may be needed before the enormity and importance of that legacy is properly recorded by history.

Seamus Mallon, the former first deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, and deputy leader of the SDLP, aptly sums up Hume's career in the concluding page of Fitzpatrick's book: "There is a greatness about his political life. I would put him in the same breath as Parnell and Daniel O'Connell."

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