A Legacy of Honour: The Gown’s Reflection on John Hume’s passing, Issue 1

Peter Donnelly, Editor

The Gown’s exclusive two-part feature on the life of John Hume, who died in August, aged 83. His steadfastness in pursuing a peaceful settlement to Northern Ireland and the perpetual ills of the ‘Irish question’ changed the country’s political and social landscape for future generations.

John Hume, in the Derry he loved so well, in 2000, after receiving Freedom of the City. Press Association


What is often considered a paradox is the observation that some of history’s greatest and most extraordinary political leaders come from the most ordinary and humblest of origins.  However, when that observation is deconstructed, its essential logic is fundamentally rational.  That understanding is essential to appreciating the profound legacy that Irish political leader, John Hume, leaves behind, following his death on August 3rd.  His career would become shaped by those humble beginnings as a young man from Derry city, a site which stood as a stark microcosm of the overarching communal divide in Northern Ireland.

John Hume was honoured in both life and death by those who admired his stature as a politician who embarked upon the path of attaining his aims of reconciliation and inclusivity in Northern Ireland.  As his coffin left St. Eugene’s Cathedral, on August 6th, the echoes, of Phil Coulter and Frank Gallagher’s special rendition of a favourite of John Hume’s, ‘The Town I Loved So Well,’ were heard by those gathered outside the church grounds.

The adherence to the Hume family’s request that throngs of people not line the funeral procession route, due to Covid-19 restrictions, was further testament to the respect in which many of the people of the town he loved so well was held.

Hume “possessed a worldly mindset focused on bettering the people’s lot; whether as an accomplished parliamentarian at Westminster, as a MEP in Brussels or as a MLA in Stormont.”

In the week of his death there was an outpouring of tributes to John Hume as a titanic figure who changed the face of Irish politics, in a way which would have been unthinkable in the 1970’s.                                            

Prime Ministers and Presidents past and present, party leaders in Ireland, North and South, from the UK and around the world, collectively recognised Mr. Hume’s remarkable legacy.  The cornerstone of Mr. Hume’s personal social conscience is really quite simple.  Driven by his faith, humility and humane compassion for the downtrodden, discriminated and the underprivileged, he possessed a worldly mindset focused on bettering the people’s lot; whether as an accomplished parliamentarian at Westminster, as a MEP in Brussels or as a MLA in Stormont.  He utilised every possible platform which he held to advance the Northern Irish case for a peaceful and lasting resolution to ‘The Troubles’ conflict and the broader ‘Irish question’ which had been tentatively shelved for well over fifty years.

His early days within the Derry civil rights movement was where John Hume cut his political teeth.  His was the first generation to benefit from a free secondary education, following the introduction of the 1947 Education Act as part of the UK-wide post war reforms.  Being a pupil of St. Columb’s College, brought him into contact with notable alumni such as the prodigious poets and writers, Seamus Heaney, his contemporary and close friend, and Brian Friel who captured the intricacies of Irish rural life so accurately. 

His first-hand experiences translated into an ability to advocate for reform, confronting the Stormont authorities and the carefully crafted gerrymandered system of local government in force since the 1923 state abolition of proportional representation.  The findings of the Cameron Commission, which investigated the outbreak of civil disturbance in 1969 and consequently the wider Troubles, laid bare the discontent in Derry City where unionists were capable of securing 12 out 20 seats in the borough, while 62% of the voting population was Catholic.  The ward system ensured a permanent unionist hegemony in local government polls.  John Hume knew that this coupled with the fact that Catholics were less likely to own property placed them at an immediate disadvantage. 

“We shall overcome:” John Hume was a formidable leader of the 1960’s civil rights movement in Derry. Pictured, Hume crosses the Craigavon Bridge in Derry in 1968, in images reminiscent of Martin Luther King leading his US civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Larry Doherty

In 1964 he chaired a cross-community delegation, the ‘University for Derry Campaign,’ which failed in its ultimate ambition to establish a new university in Derry City. Instead a university was planned for neighbouring Coleraine.  For many in his own community the odds seemed hopelessly stacked against their favour. Conducting a social survey of his native city he proceeded to address the existing issues of deprivation and poor education head on.  By so doing he left an indelible mark on the social landscape of Derry when he collectively formed the Credit Union in the city. 

Teenage dreams, so hard to beat, were imagined thanks to John Hume and the Credit Union movement.

A rather unlikely beneficiary of the introduction of the Derry Credit Union was the genesis of what would become The Undertones, borrowing £400 to release their debut single, ‘Teenage Kicks;’ a celebrated anthem lamenting the redundant position of a disaffected youth amidst the backdrop of a rapidly intensifying sectarian conflict. 

The nascent underpinnings of what was to emerge in the 1998 Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement were framed by John Hume

In 1970, Hume coalesced with fellow moderate nationalists predominantly from the old northern Nationalist Party, including Gerry Fitt, Ivan Cooper, Seamus Mallon and Brid Rodgers, to establish the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).  The death of John Hume marks a third loss for the SDLP, with the deaths of Seamus Mallon and John Dallat earlier in 2020.

John Hume and then Labour Home Secretary Jim Callaghan with senior Police, in Derry/Londonderry, 1969. Larry Doherty/History Ireland

He entered the short-lived Sunningdale power-sharing administration where he became Commerce Minister before its collapsing in 1974 as a consequence of Ulster Workers’ Council Strike unrest, before beginning twenty-two-year tenure as party leader in 1979.

His political development coincided with his espousal of the ‘three strand’ model which acknowledged that a lasting settlement could not endure until the totality of the relationships within Ireland, north and south, and between Ireland and Britain were recognised. This was the nascent beginnings of what was to emerge in the central framework of the 1998 Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement.

It was by no means a straightforward endeavour to garner support for constitutional nationalism within the Irish-American community in the United States, which viewed the situation in Ireland through the militant-orientated prism of English conquest and aggression towards the ‘beleaguered’ Ireland of their ancestors.  Such views were highly jejune failing to embrace the intricacies of the Ulster inter-communal strife.  Of this view Hume said, “My argument was that that type of thinking was out of date.” 

John Hume’s partnership with major players in the US political establishment, not least the inimitable House of Representative speaker Tip O’Neill, Edward Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan saw ‘peace in Ireland’ journey its way onto the US foreign policy agenda.  As a result of Hume’s influence on Congress officials, in 1977, President Carter issued a declaration stating the Federal Government’s desire to see a lasting resolution to the Northern Ireland conflict.  From a US foreign policy standpoint, it was a significant step to essentially circumvent their British allies’ by questioning their approach to the Northern Irish conflict.  It was with Britain after all that the US chersied the ‘special relationship’ from the advent of their alliance in the fight against global fascism.

The US input was such that it transcended the conventional Democrat-Republican divide.  President Regan in the mid-1980’s availed of his close relationship with his British counterpart, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, to push for greater diplomatic ties between London and Dublin.  With such links, any prospective peace settlement needed a solid economic footing.  Investment into Northern Ireland duly followed, with US technology firm Seagate, for instance becoming one of Derry’s largest employers by the late 1980’s.

An additional ‘fourth strand’ to the peace settlement, was embodied by this US input, with Hume being the NI-US strategy’s chief exponent. President Bill Clinton, on his 1995 historic state visit to Northern Ireland, recognised this when he spoke of Hume as Ireland’s “most tireless champion” for democracy and social justice. 

Those credentials would receive countless recognition with Hume becoming a joint recipient of the Noble Peace Prize, with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble in 1998, as well as being holder of the Gandhi and Martin Luther King peace prizes and having an unparalleled 48 honorary PhD’s to his name.

Atlantic allies: House Speaker, Tip O’Neill, President Ronald Regan, Senator Edward Kennedy, Peter Barry of the Irish Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs with Hume on Capitol Hill, 1984.

It was Hume who engineered these moves, with the advantage of sufficient foresight, that Britain needed to recognise that their approach to the Northern Ireland conflict was a grave failure of governmental policy. 

The 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, despite fierce criticism of it from the bulk of unionist thinking, offered “the framework of a solution.” (O’Leary and McGarry, 1996).  The Agreement itself signalled for the first time, since the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, that a dual approach to Northern Ireland from both British and Irish states would be the only hope of a cessation of the violence, which for over thirty years claimed the lives of 3,600 people with many thousands more maimed and injured.  In Hume’s mind it was essential to recondition diplomacy between Britain and Ireland to ready the launching platform for a palatable settlement as a realistic alternative to the unceasing violence.  It was his substantial contacts within official Irish governmental circles which brought the ‘east-west’ co-operation to fruition, not least Michael Lillis, special adviser to then Taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald. 

The British-Irish dimension was a blueprint for what would materialise in the 1998 Agreement as ‘Strand Three,’ finding expression in the provision for a North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental conference.

Seeking input from the Republic was not some revolutionary move focused on dismantling the Northern state but one which made strategic sense and recognised that the concerns of one section of the population, most of whom were by no means radicals, required allaying.  Afterall the Government of Ireland Act which introduced partition in 1920 provided for a Council of Ireland which, although never convened, would promote issues of common conern between Northern and Southern Irish jurisdictions. It was a delicate balance to promote, but these elements combined to eventually bring a broadly acceptable solution to those occupying the centre in Unionist, Nationalist and British, Irish camps.

Article 1C of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement provided that the UK Parliament would legislate for Irish reunification in the event that a majority of the country favoured that destiny.  The consent principle would recevie cross-party support in the 1998 Agreement and subsequent statutory sanction in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which implemented the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement and devolutionary governance in Northern Ireland.

It is this view of John Hume – the statesman which holds the most weight.  The guiding principles by which he wholly abided and strived for focused on the fundamental existence of democratic political institutions, within which pluralist debate and analysis thrived.  Such principles should be axiomatic to all democrats, regardless of political ideology.  

In the heat of debate: John Hume and DUP leader and founder Ian Paisley who opposed the 1998 settlement. AP/Max Nash

Perhaps in today’s world, where hyper-partisanship dictates the day, room for respectful disagreement should be allocated.  Although Dennis Murray, the former Irish correspondent for the BBC, stressed that Hume could “slug it out with the best of them” when the situation required. 

The second installment of our exclusive John Hume feature will be available in the Autumn.

International Men’s Day: remembering male figures who have promoted global love and peace

This International Men’s Day, Pallavi Atey remembers male figures who have promoted global love and peace.

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