Tuesday 22 January 2019

My parents' friend, heroic champion of civil rights in Ireland

John Hume is a deeply serious man, recalls Emily Hourican, whose memories of him go back to her childhood

WISDOM: John Hume and Derry City. Picture: PA
WISDOM: John Hume and Derry City. Picture: PA

Emily Hourican

I have many memories of John Hume, going back much of my life - I was born in Belfast, in 1971, where my father, Liam, was RTE's Northern correspondent, and became a close friend and supporter of Hume's - but my favourite involves a giant tub of fish soup.

We were somewhere in Brittany, on holiday, around 30 years ago. We had come from our corner of the region to meet up with the Humes and the plan was to buy big containers of a fish soup from a little shop in the town, then go back to the house where the Humes were staying and have lunch. John, my dad and another man went into the shop to get the soup while we kids waited outside. They emerged, with a giant plastic tub of warm soup, which my father was carrying. In a hideous kind of slow motion, we watched as they bumped into a small boy - aged six, maybe seven, years old - and spilled the entire tub all over him.

Cue total consternation. The boy, although mercifully not burned, was howling; his parents were furious; my father was dabbing hopelessly at the steaming fishy mess with a small handkerchief and apologising profusely, while the other man - in my recollection, anyway - was laughing so hard he had to hide around the corner.

Meanwhile John said nothing, simply looked awhile, then disappeared. He emerged, moments later, from a nearby shop, with what looked like the entire contents of the sweets aisle in his arms and gave them to the kid. It was like he'd waved a magic wand. The howling stopped and harmony was instantly restored.

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.

At the time, I was too young to have any real idea who John Hume was beyond a friend of my parents, or understand the extraordinary impact he would have on life in this country. But watching In The Name Of Peace, John Hume in America, which premiered at the Savoy last Friday night to an audience that included John's wife Pat, his son John Jnr and former President Mary McAleese, I immediately recognised the John Hume I know in the remarkable portrait of a tireless human rights leader that emerges. As Michael Lillis, diplomat and Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiator, puts it: "He thought his way through every strategy with extraordinary clarity and brilliance." Even where it concerned a small boy and a bucket of fish soup.

Directed by Maurice Fitzpatrick and narrated by Liam Neeson, with contributions from Pat Hume, Bill Clinton, Bono, Jimmy Carter, Tony Blair, David Trimble, Bertie Ahern (and sadly without contemporary contributions from Hume himself, who was prevented by illness), In The Name Of Peace tells the story of how Hume succeeded in a vital mission at which all others had failed - persuading the US to take a public interest in the fate of Northern Ireland. It was the success of that mission that finally brought about peace in the North.

He did this by forging strong relationships with Tip O'Neill, Speaker of the House of representatives, Senators Ted Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Governor Hugh Carey - The Four Horsemen. By his unwavering belief in non-violence, and, most of all, by the remarkable force of personality that allowed him to pursue with single-minded completeness the thing he believed was possible and necessary: A solution to the North that involved respecting the wishes of all the people who lived there.

You write it, and seems a bit 'but of course…' As if, 'well naturally that's what was required, and therefore naturally such a person emerged…' In reality, what John Hume did was pretty much superhuman. He stuck to a course of action he knew absolutely was right, through four decades, even while the world blew up around him and fractured off into many different, dangerous pieces.

John Hume first met Ted Kennedy at Kennedy's request in 1972 in Bonn, where Kennedy was visiting. John had to go to the credit union to get a loan to cover the flight and one night's accommodation. And it was worth it, because after that meeting, Kennedy said: "That's the man I will listen to." Over the following years, Hume gradually worked with Kennedy, O'Neill and the others to persuade President Carter to become involved. Through them, Carter says: "I became convinced the United States should speak out on this issue." This sounds like nothing much, but it was huge, given that Britain, with whom the US had a long-standing 'Special Relationship', had always worked very hard to keep America from doing this very thing. Britain wanted the US to stay out, and every previous American president had respected that.

Early in In The Name Of Peace, there is footage of a young Hume confronting a commanding officer of the British army on Magilligan Strand, in 1971. Hume wants the right to continue marching in peaceful protest against internment, but the way is blocked by the army, who are using rubber bullets and gas. Despite being aggressively talked down to in clipped, upper-class tones by a man who seems just a hair's breadth away from calling the protesters 'riff raff', Hume remains calm and reasonable, reiterating his point that the protest is peaceful and they should have the right to go where they please. At no point does he lose his cool. But it was that interaction that persuaded him that the march scheduled for the following Sunday - January 30 - in Derry, was unsafe. He asked the organisers to cancel. Alas, that march went ahead, and became known as Bloody Sunday when it ended in the deaths of 14 unarmed people, shot dead by British soldiers.

WISDOM: John Hume with a young Bertie Ahern
WISDOM: John Hume with a young Bertie Ahern

Aside from the stamina and conviction and resilience with which Hume pursued his peaceful ideal, he also had a wonderful ability to take heat out of a situation that was frequently at vicious boiling-point. Consider his very moving statement on Bobby Sands, shortly after he died: "The British government wanted Bobby Sands to die or surrender, the IRA had to have victory or Bobby Sands to die. The only people who wanted Bobby Sands to live were the ordinary people of Northern Ireland." He concluded that speech by saying: "I ask the people to show a deep sense of leadership and self-discipline in the present situation." As Bono puts it in the documentary: "John Hume took down the emotional temperature of the Troubles just enough so that reason could be heard."

The Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed by Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald in 1985, came about under Reagan's Presidency, and was, Thatcher later said, a direct result of her exasperation that every time she got together with Reagan, he brought up the Irish Question. "It was the Americans who made me do it," she later said.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was the moment when Hume's strategy, first honed back in the 1960s, became political reality. It was the culmination of 30 years saying the same things, reiterating the same basic principles by which lasting peace in the North could be established. "Ireland's most tireless champion for civil rights," as Clinton called him.

Tireless barely covers it, when you consider the many setbacks, sideshows, barriers and hostility he encountered along the way; each one taken as another step to be negotiated and never a final stumbling block. It is a rare personality that can endure the way he did.

WISDOM: John Hume with fellow Nobel laureate David Trimble
WISDOM: John Hume with fellow Nobel laureate David Trimble

Perhaps the most interesting contribution to In The Name Of Peace, comes from Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the SDLP, who says of Hume: "He went on solo runs and that was sometimes very disturbing for other members. He would not take criticism well. He would not take it at all. He always preferred to be on his own. Here was this man who enjoyed company but preferred working alone. That caused problems."

Clearly, Mallon is neither dazzled by nor sentimental about the man he worked closely with for four decades, and yet, later he says: "Inside was a man who had something big to do. There is a greatness about his political life. I would put him in the same breath as Parnell, Daniel O'Connell."

John Hume was never one of my parents' fun friends. He paid little or no attention to us kids, beyond a courteous hello. He was a deeply serious man, involved in a deeply serious mission, one he never seemed to lose sight of.

I would love to think that everyone involved in government in the North now would watch this documentary - watch the way this man persisted, against immense obstacles, and never ever gave up, no matter how impossible resolution must at times have seemed. I think they might learn something.

In The Name Of Peace: John Hume In America, by Maurice Fitzpatrick, is on release at selected IMC Cinemas

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss

Editor's Choice