John Hume: A Legacy of Honour Autumn Issue 2

The Credit Union movement recently recognised John Hume, as one of its key founders in Derry and the North West region, by releasing a portrait of the peacemaker commissioned by Dublin artist Shane Gillen. The death in August of John Hume, the leader of the SDLP for over twenty years, signalled a time for reflection on the pivitol role of Hume in the stewardship of the Northern Irish conflict towards the Good Friday Agreement settlement.

Portrait of John Hume presented to the Irish League of Credit Unions.

In this second Autumn installment, editor Peter Donnelly, retraces the final stages of John Hume’s political career.


Named as RTÉ’S Greatest Man in 2012, it is unsurprising that lofty parallels have been made between Hume and former champions of the Irish cause such as Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell – lofty parallels which are in no way misplaced.  However, John Hume achieved what the aforementioned constitutionalists did not. 

O’Connell, Parnell or indeed John Redmond failed to  see the fruits of their work accomplished with democratic Irish self-government introduced, however, Hume nurtured the devolved institutions, introduced by the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement into being.  He altered the situation of the ‘Irish question’ as imply an Irish one.  Instead he gave it international appeal, with him seeing the European Union as another crucial guarantor of the peace process.  Fortunately, for John Hume he was spared experiencing the turbulence of Brexit which is yet to benefit from a permanent solution. 

John Hume’s legacy is by no means one dimensional.  He had, as the human inevitably has, a multi-faceted character with his downfalls.  As his secret talks with Provisional Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, were publicly revealed politicians from within and without his party offered no end of criticism to Hume’s strategy for offering the olive branch to the figure head of movement wedded to a violent campaign against the state.  His action was to see him pitted against the established order of both UK and Irish administrations as well within Unionism and the settled principles of the SDLP.  It was John Hume who initiated this intra-nationalist dialogue beginning in the mid-1980’s seeing it as the most logical move toward bringing the Provisional Republican movement to a ceasefire; the first tentative one being announced in 1994.

A former political correspondent for the Irish News, William Graham, described how the Hume-Adams dialogue secured the way for the peace process from 1992, “It was his [Hume’s] meetings – encouraged by Fr. Alec Reid and others – with Adams which eventually led to the Downing Street Declaration, the ceasefires, engagements with unionists, and ultimately the Good Friday Agreement.”

The perseverance of Hume undoubtedly was the ultimate determinant of the Sinn Féin talks progress, which continued through some of the worst atrocities of the Troubles.  On the cusp of the Republican ceasefire the violence of the 1990’s was particularly shocking, with the PIRA Shankill Road bombing, the loyalist murders at Greysteel in 1993 and the 1997 murders of police constables David Johnston and John Graham in Lurgan.  

September 6, 1994: Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams shakes hands with John Hume, while Albert Reynolds, Prime Minister of Ireland, looks on. The Northern Irish Nobel Laureate in Literature, Seamus Heaney, used a fable of a hedgehog and the fox to describe both Hume and Trimble and the difference between them. “John Hume is the hedgehog, knew a big truth that justice had to prevail,” he wrote. David Trimble, on the other hand, is “the fox, who has known many things, but who had the intellectual clarity and political courage to know that 1998 was the time to move unionism towards an accommodation with reasonable and honorable nationalist aspirations. In so doing, he opened the possibility of a desirable and credible future for all the citizens of Northern Ireland.” Corbus

Martin Dillon, writer and former BBC reporter recalls both Hume’s ambitions and anxieties during his talks with the Provisional Republican movement,

“I produced his appearance with Gerry Adams on the BBC Northern Ireland radio programme, Behind the Headlines, which caused controversy.  John wanted an end to the violence and was prepared to talk to anyone who might deliver itI arranged for him to meet the UDA/UFF leader, John McMichael, who had a deep respect for John Hume’s political acumen.” 

Writing in The Irish Times former political adviser to the late Northern Ireland Secretary of State Mo Mowlam, Brendan O’Leary highlighted that John Hume, “knew what he was doing, and what he was doing was good – bringing an uncivil war to an end. He had no script; he improvised what was required, exploiting each moment as best he could. It is difficult to imagine who else could have done it, let alone done it better.”

His championing of such an ostracised initiative of speaking to the by no means weighed lightly on his own health and personal life as Martin Dillon further recounts.

“He faced widespread criticism for the interview from many media outlets.  For a man who could be self-assured, he was often nervous.  He knew the import of what had occurred.  He had agreed to talk to the IRA.  He was anxious to know from me and the programme presenter, Brian Garrett, that he had made a dreadful error and allowed Adams to win the argument on air.  He telephoned Barry White at the Belfast Telegraph to get his opinion.  This was the other side of John.  He never took anything for granted.  He was opinionated, but he was never conceited.”

His wife, Pat’s abiding support along with his strong family unit were, as he often said, crucial throughout his career.

Time will be the conclusive judge of Hume’s motivations and whether his constitutional credentials and openness were jeopardised for mainstream republicanism to profit with a new-found legitimacy, which was to propel Sinn Féin to electoral triumph from 2005, to the eternal detriment of the SDLP. Although it has been reported that Seamus Mallon had a deeper understanding of the Ulster Unionist position, John Hume’s unremitting cascading of those engaged in terrorist violence was paramount to the respect he fostered amongst the UUP in the run up to and following the popular ratification of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. The News Letter’s Ben Lowry acknowledged that “Unionist respect for Mr Hume’s opposition to violence, however, was genuine.”

David Trimble and John Hume, recipients of the Noble Peace Prize in 1998 following their work during the Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement.

If ‘character is destiny’ as the Greek maxim goes, then arguably it was the fortunate character of John Hume and his constitutional contemporaries, both nationalist and unionist, who combined to salvage what seemed to be the hopeless destiny of a Northern Ireland beleaguered by violence.

Following an overwhelming endorsement of the structures of the 1998 Agreement, Hume led the SDLP and the bulk of the northern nationalist population into the new devolved institutions of government.  Hindsight often ponders why John Hume surprising nominated Seamus Mallon for position of deputy First Minister of the new Executive in 1999 and did not take the reins of power himself, however, his legacy will remain through his placing firm foundations for a settlement into action.

The Troubles was a traumatic and destructive time for Northern Ireland, with a conflict which ceaselessly raged for thirty years; the tragic and scarring effects of which will not be forgotten.  That journey is still by no means over.  There is now relative peace, however the conflict of the narratives remains as divisive as it ever was. 

In 2020, John Hume’s vision of changing the hearts and the minds of the people has stood the test of time and been proven to be pose an insurmountable challenge to those who cling to the sectarian rivalry of the past.  Hard won progress has been made, with relations between British and Irish Governments strong, in no small measure to Hume’s ‘three strand’ model. 

John Hume was one of the Northern Ireland members of the European Parliament from 1979. His fluency in French suited him to the EU stage, which he saw as central pillar in European democracy. He was MP for his native Foyle until April 2005.

What is perhaps one of his most evocative and astute pieces of oratory, perhaps in the history of Northern Ireland, was delivered by John Hume at the 1999 SDLP Conference, during the difficult phase of seeing the spirit of the Agreement’s contents being transposed into deed:

“It is through working together in the institutions, on the practical issues – day-to-day politics – that we will turn partnership from a slogan or an aspiration into a living reality.”

This should stand as the legacy of John Hume and the echoes of those words of profound intuition uttered more than twenty years ago should remain as wisdom which all political players in Northern Ireland today should heed.

Over the past decade, John Hume was seldon seen in public. The unfortunate onset of dimentia impaired his ability to sound his inner voice of reason. He continued to participate in ceremonial events. In 2014, President Bill Clinton visited Derry to pay tribute to Hume Civil Rights leader etc and the 20th Anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement held at Queen’s University.

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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