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My friend John Hume had a very simple view - you have to talk to your enemy

Bertie Ahern


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16/8/01 Bertie Ahern poses with John Hume before a meeting at Government Buildings. PIC:MARC O'SULLIVAN/COLLINS AGENCY

16/8/01 Bertie Ahern poses with John Hume before a meeting at Government Buildings. PIC:MARC O'SULLIVAN/COLLINS AGENCY

16/8/01 Bertie Ahern poses with John Hume before a meeting at Government Buildings. PIC:MARC O'SULLIVAN/COLLINS AGENCY

My friend John Hume had a very simple view: You have to talk to your enemy.

Doing that creates huge risk for democratic governments but if you want to make progress, you have to accept that the status quo can’t remain untouched.

Today Ireland is at peace, largely because of a man who stayed going when it seemed everyone had turned against him.

John’s perseverance was ultimately rewarded with a stable peace process and thankfully global recognition of his role in Irish history.

Over a glass of white wine he used to often remind me that he was the only man to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1998), the Martin Luther King Jnr Nonviolent Peace Prize (1999) and the Gandhi Peace Prize (2001).

John got millions of awards. He would be able to recount all of them but those three were the ones he would always go back to.

My first memories of John were after I was elected in 1977. He used to drift into the Dáil and was regularly caller to the Member’s Bar. I started getting friendly with him in the early ‘80s after I became Fianna Fáil assistant whip. We would meet with the SDLP to discuss events and he struck me as a great character. Always nice, on top of his game, giving advice and opinions on how things should be handled.

He’d spend days in Leinster House briefing people on the latest crisis in the North and every party would have an open door for him, regardless of who was in government or opposition. John was unquestionably the big link in the bad years between north and south.

In those days the only thing in the news was the Troubles.

Today Ireland is at peace, largely because of a man who stayed going when it seemed everyone had turned against him

John was always to see if there was a way to find an agreement. During the early 1980s he spent a lot of time working on the New Ireland Forum. Veronica Guerin was actually secretary to the forum and I remember many a cup of tea was had with Veronica and John during that.

We had a difference of opinions over the Anglo Irish Agreement (1985) but it never hurt our personal relationship.

And even when everyone turned against him, he kept going. There was a point where it seemed like he was doing it on his own.

People will remember the ‘Sunday Independent’ was famously critical of his willingness to engage with Sinn Féin and the IRA in the early 1990s.

A story many people might not know is that years later Aengus Fanning, the late editor, rang me because he wanted to make up with John. I arranged so that the three of us could meet in Fagan’s in Drumcondra. It turned into a great day of conversation. Everything was made up, not so much with an apology but with friendly chats.

Myself and John used to often go to Fagan’s when I was Taoiseach. The Derry bus would drop him off across the road at my office, St Luke’s, and I’d get one of my drivers to drop him back into town for the bus back afterwards.

The lads in there would make a big fuss out of him and it was always great fun. Although one day I remember there was a conversation about the decommissioning of arms and somebody else brought up Charlie Haughey and the importation of arms. John got a bit confused and started telling them off, saying ‘I never imported arms’.

He was very upset when the IRA ceasefire broke down in 1996. He had invested so much into that period. And then the cards came tumbling down with Canary Wharf. At that stage it had gone the very top of the hill and it all came rolling back down.

I had to go to him and tell him we couldn't continue the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation gig in Dublin Castle. The sad thing about that is that forum which Albert Reynold set up in 1992 never came back again.

But eventually we got to the Good Friday Agreement. The only thing he really wanted to see was the all-island vote. He said this was a way of taking away the IRA’s argument that they had a mandate from the first Dáil in 1918. If the Good Friday Agreement was put to the full island and passed then the IRA's mandate ceased. I backed him on that to make sure it happened. Tony Blair couldn't understand why I wanted it because we were talking about trying to overwrite something from 1918. That all-island vote made so much sense in the end.

All the awards rightly followed as people understood the courage and commitment it took to deliver lasting peace. As the conflict raged in Northern Ireland, through sheer willpower the name of John Hume became synonymous around the world with the refusal to yield to those forces of hatred, of death, and destruction.

Having said that one of the things he was most proud of, and really felt was so important in his life was the Credit Union movement. He because president of the League of Credit Unions at just 26. He travelled all over Ireland setting up branches and that actually gave him a huge fell for the south. If I didn’t mention that he’d come back and haunt me.

Now he sits up there with the best of them. Himself and Seamus Mallon who died just over six months ago.

Every person on this island, nationalist, unionist or whatever, owes John Hume a great debt of gratitude for delivering democracy, freedom and human rights through methods many said were naïve.

He gave us peace in our time, may he now rest in peace.

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