John Hume and Bill Clinton - A match made in heaven
Dubbed the Martin Luther King of the North by Bill Clinton, a new documentary shows how John Hume brought the Americans on board in order to coax the British to the negotiating table. Our reporter meets director Maurice Fitzpatrick, who wants to set the record straight on the Derry politician's legacy
John Hume's public life is over. At the end of Maurice Fitzpatrick's fine new documentary In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America, a poignant caption informs us that its subject was too ill to take part. In fact, as Hume's wife Pat has revealed, the 80-year-old former SDLP leader now suffers from dementia and often cannot recall things that happened half an hour ago.
"Fortunately for me," says Fitzpatrick over an afternoon cup of coffee in the RTÉ canteen where he is recording some international radio interviews, "there are still quite a few important people who are happy to talk about John's legacy".
This is something of an understatement. The interviewees for Fitzpatrick's film, which he has also expanded into a book, include two taoisigh (Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny), two US presidents (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton), two British prime ministers (John Major and Tony Blair) and a host of other major players from the Northern peace process (David Trimble, Gerry Adams, George Mitchell, Seamus Mallon, etc). Bono pops up to pay his own misty-eyed tribute ("John Hume took down the emotional temperature of the Troubles so that reason could be heard"), Liam Neeson provides the narration and there is even an original music score composed by Bill Whelan of Riverdance fame.
"Of course there have been documentaries about Hume before," Fitzpatrick tells me. "But I wanted to focus on an aspect of his life that has never received proper attention until now. I had a sense that this project was not just rehashing history, it was actually history in the making."
The clue is in the subtitle. John Hume in America shows how a gruff ex-schoolteacher from Derry fundamentally reshaped the power balance between Britain and Ireland by persuading US politicians to get behind his crusade for peace.
"He was the first Irish leader who fully understood the power of Washington," Fitzpatrick says, "which enabled him to effectively bypass the unionists and bring the British to the negotiating table."
Today Hume is arguably the closest thing that Ireland has to a secular saint. He has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (along with David Trimble) and voted the greatest Irish person of all time in an RTÉ television poll (with Miriam O'Callaghan arguing his case). Even so, Fitzpatrick argues that the full scale of his achievement is still not properly understood.
"Some people in Northern Ireland have been rewriting history to suit their own purposes. But the peace process didn't just begin in the 1990s. John Hume was setting out a vision for power-sharing and reconciliation in newspaper articles as early as 1964. The tragedy is that it took others so long to see he was right."
Now that Sinn Féin has overtaken Hume's SDLP as the dominant voice of northern nationalists, Fitzpatrick believes it is more important than ever to set the record straight. He disapprovingly cites a remark made by Gerry Adams about unionists at a party meeting in 2014 - "The point is to actually break these bastards" - which is light years away from Hume's fundamental message of respect and inclusivity.
Bill Clinton told Fitzpatrick that he sees Hume as "the Martin Luther King of the Irish conflict". The documentary skilfully uses archive footage to illustrate Hume's admiration for the 1960s US civil rights movement and his adoption of its non-violent tactics. In one particularly tense clip, we see him arguing with a plummy-voiced British army officer over the firing of plastic bullets at an anti-internment march on Derry's Magilligan Strand in 1972. This incident convinced him that another demonstration planned for the following week should not go ahead, but it did - and the result was Bloody Sunday.
As Fitzpatrick explains, Hume and America turned out to be a match made in heaven. He saw the US as a role model for how people from different traditions could live peacefully together, once remarking, "Do you know what the most amazing thing about this place is? It's all one country."
For their part, many Irish-American politicians remembered the NINA (No Irish Need Apply) culture that had once existed in cities such as Boston and felt a duty to help end discrimination back on the 'old sod'.
Even so, Fitzpatrick points out, Hume had to regularly advise his new friends against a simplistic 'Brits out' policy and discouraged any support for the IRA. He warned Provo fundraising groups such as Noraid, "Ask yourself if you would personally pull a trigger or throw a bomb, for that is what your dollar will do."
Hume assembled a pressure group in Washington known as the Four Horsemen (Ted Kennedy, Pat Moynihan, Hugh Carey and Tip O'Neill), which developed into the more broadly based Friends of Ireland.
In 1985, their lobbying of President Ronald Reagan caused him in turn to persuade British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that she should sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement. She later came to bitterly regret giving the Republic of Ireland even an advisory role in Northern affairs, telling a friend, "The Americans made me do it."
When Clinton entered the White House, Hume's influence over American policy reached new heights. As part of his campaign to draw Sinn Féin into democratic politics, he helped persuade the president to grant Gerry Adams an American visa. Thatcher's successor John Major was so infuriated by this decision that he refused to take Clinton's phone calls for a week.
The culmination of Hume's strategy came when Senator George Mitchell was sent to Northern Ireland as a US Special Envoy in 1995. He later chaired the talks that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement, which Fitzpatrick hails as "John's crowning achievement".
Mitchell's presence was not universally popular with the British, and he recalls an MP sarcastically asking him: "If Texas wanted to secede from the union, would you ask a Brit over to sort it out?"
Fitzpatrick's interest in this subject is not just academic. Born in 1981, he grew up a couple of miles away from the Border in Belturbet, Co Cavan, where his father Seamus served as an independent councillor and mayor.
"As a child, I saw people being interrogated by British soldiers and farmers getting terrorised. Even then I realised the absurdity of the border and the sheer inconvenience it created in our lives."
Fitzpatrick studied English at Trinity College Dublin, then lectured on Irish literature in Japanese and German universities. He first met John Hume while making a documentary about St Columb's College, the prestigious Catholic grammar school in Derry which produced such high-achievers as Seamus Heaney, Eamonn McCann, Paul Brady and Phil Coulter.
"There was an intellectual sensitivity to John that I found attractive," Fizpatrick recalls. "He was always concerned with getting the right words in the right order."
What might Hume make of the political stalemate in Northern Ireland today? "He would be horrified by Brexit, particularly as a majority of people in the north voted to remain. He would be deeply frustrated by what's happening at Stormont, which is a terrible abdication of responsibility. But he would also be urging all sides to keep talking because that is the only way to get a solution."
Once again, Fizpatrick believes, the US should have a major role to play. "On the same day in September that we screened this documentary for an audience on Capitol Hill, news came through that Donald Trump will appoint another special envoy to Northern Ireland. It's a hugely positive development. Now that the British government is beholden to the DUP in Westminster, we really need America to rebalance the situation."
Fitzpatrick's film and book could be seen as a bit of a rebalancing exercise itself. At a time when voters across the world are turning away from establishment parties, he argues, Hume's shining example shows that politics can still be a noble profession.
"Here is the story of a man in extraordinarily difficult circumstances who advocated dialogue over violence and ultimately saved lives. As Bill Clinton says, John Hume held the line. That's why all Irish people owe him so much."
In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America is on release in selected cinemas nationwide and John Hume in America: From Derry to DC is published by Irish Academic Press