The centrepiece of this week's Sunday Independent is our coverage of John Hume's vast and unparalleled contribution to achieving a lasting peace in Ireland. Naturally, every media outlet in the country has marked Hume's passing last Monday in his native Derry but readers will find a different dimension to the coverage in this newspaper, beyond the tributes to his single-minded pursuit of peace and the examination of his legacy. I'm referring, of course, to the barrage of hostile coverage Hume was subjected to in the Sunday Independent in the second half of 1993 and into the following year - a time when he was in discussions with the Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, about a cessation of IRA violence and terror.
t was a different Ireland in 1993 — and a different Sunday Independent. In a riveting piece this week, Liam Collins takes us back to that time, when editor Aengus Fanning was driven by a desire to get his newspaper talked about — and read. More than anyone, Eamon Dunphy ticked both of those boxes. More on him later.
I was living in London at the time and have little memory of that coverage, but over three days last week, I trawled through the Sunday Independent archive and read everything published on the Hume-Adams talks in 1993, when the analysis was at its most trenchant.
At the same time, I was reading and listening to the countless tributes paid to Hume as he was being laid to rest. The juxtaposition of the two was sometimes breathtaking.
Week after week, Hume’s initiative was on the receiving end of intense scrutiny — as the newspaper would have defended it at the time. Others saw it differently, describing what was published as poisonous — “persistent and vicious attacks”, as one friend of Hume’s put it.
The man hailed by Bill Clinton as “Ireland’s Martin Luther King” was accused of being behind “a shabby charade in the name of peace”. It was speculated that his decision to sit down with Adams would prove to be “a miscalculation of historic proportions”.
Such analysis has not aged well, to put it mildly, but the same could be said of countless newspaper articles written in the moment, at a time of uncertainty. And, let us not forget, this was a time when innocent people were still being murdered and maimed by terrorist organisations like the IRA.
Journalism might be the first rough draft of history, but reporters and columnists writing in the moment are not historians and the newspaper that got everything right has yet to come off a printing press.
It can be easy to forget that the idea of peace in Northern Ireland was once almost impossible to conceive, let alone deliver.
It was this weekend 27 years ago — August 8, 1993 — when suspicion bordering on hostility gave way to what can be fairly described as an all-out attack on Hume mounted by the paper’s biggest star writer of the day, Dunphy, in an incendiary back-page piece.
Much more followed over the following months, with a string of opinion writers joining in and attacking the Hume-Adams talks. An editorial defended the coverage in the strongest terms: “Dissent from Mr Hume’s fallible political judgment by Sunday Independent columnists should be seen for what it is — as part of a healthy democratic debate on a major issue.”
To say there was a “debate” would be a stretch. For months, the only regular dissenting voice was that of the eminent historian Dr Ronan Fanning. When the SDLP’s Mark Durkan sought a right of reply to Dunphy’s August 8 column, it was refused. That was wrong. Some of what was written was offensively over the top — for example Dunphy referring to Hume as “the political bomber flying over unionist heads trying to kill them”.
A cartoon drawing of Hume which appeared with that column – and with at least two subsequent pieces – became a source of controversy. In later years, it was wrongly described as depicting “blood dripping from John Hume’s hands”. There was no dripping blood, but Hume’s right hand was dark, in stark contrast to his left. It was, in my view, ambiguous — and wide open to the interpretation that Hume’s hand was stained by blood.
The coverage is characterised by Hume’s friend Michael Lillis this week as “false and wanton vitriol”, which “gushed Sunday after Sunday” and “caused Hume immense distress”.
The paper was absolutely entitled to subject Hume-Adams to plenty of scrutiny, at a time when the IRA instilled fear in decent Irish people — but to refuse a platform to a senior SDLP figure who took serious issue with what was being written was an indefensible decision.
Over seven pages this week, I hope we have recognised the scale of Hume’s contribution. The coverage includes heavy criticism of the Sunday Independent’s approach in 1993-94. In the interests of balance and fairness, there is also a defence of it, mounted by two of the journalists who were in the thick of it back then. Part of their argument is that the criticism was motivated by concerns that the Hume-Adams process would effectively legitimise the IRA.
“My fear was not that there would be peace, but that the IRA would pocket each concession and then turn violence on and off strategically in order to extract more,” writes Eilis O’Hanlon.
Hume, ultimately, was vindicated. Whatever argument there was, he won it. He is widely regarded now as the man who did more than anyone alive or dead to deliver peace in Ireland.
For that, we are all in his debt.