Friday 23 August 2019

A politician's long journey that found the path to peace

With a new film and book celebrating the life of John Hume now released, the author Maurice Fitzpatrick selects some extracts which reveal the magnitude of Hume's achievements

MAKING A STAND: John Hume is detained by soldiers during a civil rights protest in Derry in 1971.
MAKING A STAND: John Hume is detained by soldiers during a civil rights protest in Derry in 1971.

Maurice Fitzpatrick

The rise of John Hume in Derry politics came against the backdrop of civil unrest and discontent felt by the Catholic minority in the North of Ireland.

The first augury of the Civil Rights Movement was the University for Derry protest in February 1965, which was remarkable in that it represented the entire community of Derry.

Hume fronted this cross-community rally and motorcade to Stormont Parliament in February 1965 to establish the ''second university'' in Derry, the ''second city'' of the Northern Irish State.

This 25,000-strong motorcade was one of the earliest and strongest expressions of non-violent protest in Northern Ireland - and was comparable in intent and conviction to the Selma to Montgomery march, led by Martin Luther King the following month, March 1965.

There was plenty to protest. Above all, the rigged system of allocating houses embittered the predominately Nationalist electoral ward of Derry. As journalist and activist Eamonn McCann observed: "We had thousands of people on a housing list and everybody in Derry knew that one of the reasons that more houses were not being built was that… to give a person a house was to give them a vote: only householders could vote and the Unionist Party in Derry had to be very circumspect about to whom it handed a vote."

Unsurprisingly, then, it was more than anything else the housing situation that made it inevitable for John Hume to enter parliamentary politics in 1969.

The newly-minted MP, elected to represent the Foyle constituency at the Parliament of Northern Ireland, had never before held political office. Nevertheless, he gave the impression of one who had considerably more experience than his 32 years and novice status might indicate.

He had already represented Ireland in the United States during his presidency of the Irish Credit Union, and he was alert to the wider movements of the world, which were gathering pace: from Prague to Memphis, equality movements were challenging traditions and demanding new approaches to politics.

Such changes were the nub of what the Parliament of Northern Ireland in Stormont had stood against. Even so, Hume had considerable confidence in himself and in his approach to politics.

The least parliamentary of parliaments, the atmosphere in Stormont towards the new, articulate generation hungry to establish themselves in Northern Ireland could hardly have been less welcoming. Yet, in spite of such intolerance, the sclerotic and self-perpetuating cycle of the rigged parliament was about to be unsettled by a parliamentarian of uncommon ability.


The first US president to break with the orthodoxy of non-interference on the part of the United States in ''Britain's domestic affairs'' was President Jimmy Carter.

In the book, Carter explains why he chose to do so. He recalls that a group of very prominent US politicians who took their lead on Northern Ireland from John Hume - Speaker Tip O'Neill, Senator Ted Kennedy, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Governor Hugh Carey, who became known as ''The Four Horsemen'' - persuaded Carter to speak out for change in Northern Ireland.

"When I was elected President and gave my inaugural address, I called for the US to be a champion of human rights and to promote peace everywhere we could in the world. Obviously, I learned very quickly that one of the main challenges for peace and human rights was in Northern Ireland, in its relationship with the rest of Ireland and also with Great Britain.

"Soon, Governor Hugh Carey from New York, Pat Moynihan and Ted Kennedy in the Senate, and Tip O'Neill started giving me information about it quite often. Pat Moynihan and the others, Tip O'Neill, would quote John Hume and his efforts for a peaceful resolution of the Irish problem.

"I became convinced that the United States should speak out for change on this issue and call for honouring the desire for the Northern Ireland people for peace - with Great Britain and the rest of Ireland - and also for recognition by the international community.

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"So I drafted a statement that was issued the first year I was in office, not only calling for the United States to be directly involved but also to promise that if peace was achieved, the United States would join with others in giving financial assistance to job creation."

It was a very supportive and very benign one-page statement. Yet what was striking about the 1977 Carter Statement was quite how much it seemed to antagonise the State Department and the British, whose resistance was vehement.

President Carter provides the political context: "Well, the State Department was not in favour of what I did, as you may know. But I didn't really consult with them too thoroughly. I had a lot of confidence in Pat Moynihan, and Tip O'Neill was visiting me every day. Hugh Carey was very important to me as a politician, so was Ted Kennedy."

The Four Horsemen were in a position to convey the intricacies of the problem to Carter - the provocations and injustices felt by the Nationalist community in the North, and not simply the IRA response to them. Yet, while some commentators, both in the US and Ireland, equivocated on the use of violence to settle the Northern Irish issue, Carter's statement was clear that if the White House was to play a role, absolutely no tolerance of violent methods was acceptable.

It is a statement of non-violence and that was in absolute accord with John Hume's view of things, and President Carter was adamant that violence from either side had no place in resolution of the Irish Question:

"Well, there was violence on both sides. I think the British exhibited unnecessary violence in trying to control the Northern Irish citizens, and the IRA obviously committed acts of violence against Great Britain, including some of the top people who lived in Great Britain. Lord Mountbatten, I remember, was killed.

"So the violence on both sides caused me to be very careful, to make sure that my statement back in 1977 did not encourage either side to continue with their violent acts. Peace was very important to me as well as human rights, those were the two things that were important to my whole administration."

In addition to conveying the urgency and necessity of action to President Carter, Hume and the Horsemen were at pains to find a way through the State Department bureaucracy, as Senator Ted Kennedy recalled: "My conversations, and I believe John's, were with Cy Vance [Secretary of State Cyrus Vance] and a number of the people who were advising and guiding President Carter at that time …

"In early June, Tip and I and Pat Moynihan went to the State Department to present a proposal to Cy Vance. This was the proposal - if there was going to be progress made in terms of the two different traditions in the conflict, the US was prepared to offer economic aid and assistance in order to try to move the conflict into the political sphere and political resolution. We had a proposal and we pointed out that it fit perfectly into President Carter's commitment to a moral foreign policy and his strong commitment on human rights."

While the British Embassy reports to London on the defeat in the US Congress of the Fogarty Resolution on Irish reunification a generation earlier were jubilant, representing it as a defeat not only of the Irish on the Hill but as a put down to any upstart ethnic group, with the Carter Statement things had come full circle.

Robert Hunter [Deputy Head of National Security Council in the White House] argues: ''It was one of the important moments in which the United States took an issue of importance to an ethnic community and turned it on its head and helped with the education of people.''


The US president who most engaged in supporting Northern Ireland peace, President Bill Clinton, explains in the book why he aligned his policy towards Northern Ireland with John Hume.

"I first became aware of John Hume when he became widely written about in the news and the SDLP was attempting to do the most difficult of all things, which is to be an inclusive political party in a polarising time.

"We know what works in the world is inclusive politics, inclusive economics, and inclusive social policies, but the more people are polarised and distrusting - and particularly if they're shooting guns - the more difficult it is to say, 'I'm for inclusive cooperation, I'm for peace', and John just held the line.

"He wanted an inclusive peace and he thought that non-violence was the best way to pursue it. He was the Irish conflict's Martin Luther King or Gandhi and I thought as a tactical matter he was right."

Once inaugurated, in January 1993, Clinton undertook from the very start of his presidency to build on decades of work by the US Congress and the White House to finally broker peace in Northern Ireland, and Clinton identified Hume as the touchstone for his involvement. Clinton remembers that aligning himself to Hume's view of the conflict was a natural choice from any perspective:

"I naturally gravitated to John because he was widely trusted across the board in our Congress and I needed some support in Congress to do this.

"Hume tended to legitimise the notion that America should do more because there was a huge bloc in America, including a fair number of Irish-Americans, who didn't want us to do this. Didn't want us to put our relationship with the UK at risk. The so-called 'special relationship' had been used to basically freeze us out, even though America had the largest diaspora and the largest Northern Irish diaspora in the world by a large margin.

"And because there was John, with his sane voice, always coming here at St Patrick's Day for the Speaker's lunch and always being present on the side of peace, it helped. It made it immeasurably easier for me to justify what I was doing."


The sheer breadth of Clinton's engagement is worth recounting. On his first St Patrick's Day in office, 17 March 1993, he nominated Senator Ted Kennedy's sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, as Ambassador to Ireland, and she was to prove an able and dexterous promoter of the peace agenda.

The visiting Irish Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, expressed his enthusiasm at travelling across Washington to Congress to be hosted by ''another great Irishman'', Speaker Tom Foley.

On that occasion, Clinton commended the dialogue between the British and Irish governments which provided ''the real chance of producing a framework within which peace could occur''. That dialogue resulted in the December 1993 Reynolds-Major Joint Declaration and Clinton undertook to ''continue to stay on top of the situation''.


Like President Carter in 1977, Bill Clinton was confronted with the choice of upsetting his State Department and his British friends, or of opting to take a risk on something that could move peace closer.

The group of senators' efforts occurred in tandem with Hume personally assuring President Clinton that this was a unique moment and it needed to be grasped. Bill Clinton relates: "I knew when I became president, because of what happened in December of 1992, that I would have a political opportunity if I were willing to assume the risks. And it wasn't just the risk of alienating the British, there was also the risk that I would stick my neck out, for example in the visa for Gerry Adams, and IRA violence would continue. Innocent civilians would continue to die and I would look like I'd been played for a fool. And that, over the long run, had a bigger downside.

"But I trusted Hume's instincts, and he among others encouraged the visa. He said, 'you know, I can only take this so far. Someone with credibility, with the harder-line Republicans has got to be there'.''


Jeffrey Donaldson witnessed the Unionist backlash to the Anglo-Irish Agreement and concluded that protest against an internationally recognised agreement, which had the backing of the United States, was foredoomed.How did a young Unionist politician like Donaldson at the time (Donaldson was elected at the age of 22 in 1985) perceive John Hume, given that he had an inside track in DC and an inside track in Dublin?

"Initially there was very little outreach on the part of John Hume towards Unionism. I think John Hume's view at that time was that he was not ready to engage with Unionism.

''He needed first of all to create the framework within which a future negotiation could take place; John Hume disengaged from the Assembly, wasn't involved in a dialogue with Unionism, and instead was dealing at a more international level and dealing with the British and Irish governments.

"I think that it was a mistake that Unionism did not recognise earlier the importance of that influence, the significance of that influence, the way in which Hume would use the pressure point of Washington to apply pressure on London to do business with Dublin, almost to the exclusion of the Unionists.

"So I do not think that we really caught on to that soon enough. It was only in the latter years that we began to recognise that there was no point howling at the moon for John Hume and his influence in Washington. We needed to be on the Hill. We needed to be in Washington giving the counterbalance to that influence and saying, 'any solution in Northern Ireland has to be one which both sides can endorse'."

These extracts are from John Hume in America: From Derry to DC by Maurice Fitzpatrick, published by Irish Academic Press.

Sunday Independent

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