John Hume was not the only person I know to die last month. Some days later one of my closest friends in Chicago, Pat Martin, wife of my BEST friend, Jim Martin, passed away after a stroke. She was a lovely woman, generous and hospitable and a loving companion of Jim, her husband of over half a century, she from England, he originally from Monaghan. I knew them from back in the Seventies, when Pat showed many kindnesses to my wife and me from the moment we first arrived in Chicago in 1973. She will be sorely missed by Jim, her three children and her grandchildren. May she rest in peace.
John Hume’s passing has been rightly commemorated and there is little I can add that has not already been written by people who worked with and knew John far better than I did. The tributes and assessment by former Irish Ambassador to the USA, Sean Donlon, and his fellow diplomat Michael Lillis, are particularly important since both worked extensively with him and became close personal friends, as did Sean O’Huiginn, another former Irish Ambassador to the USA. The Irish Times produced a comprehensive souvenir supplement summarising his life and career which is well worth reading.
“By their Fruits Ye shall know them,” applies very much to John Hume. His “Fruits,” his enduring monument, is the Peace which reigns in Northern Ireland which he did so much to bring about. (Regular readers may recall I used the same quote in my December 2014 column on Paisley – the very antithesis of John Hume. Enough said.)Two years ago at the celebrations to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which cemented the Peace he had striven for, the only major figure missing from the occasion was John Hume, by then sadly already in the dementia twilight. It is equally sad too that the Corona Virus restrictions recently robbed him in death of a fitting funeral.
On that anniversary I wrote of John’s role over the decades as a monumental and tireless worker for peace and reconciliation. He was there at the outset of the Civil Rights campaign in 1968. He was there through Sunningdale. He it was who conceived and worked at bringing in the benign involvement of Irish American politicians whose role and influence proved so important. He was there during the dark days in the aftermath of the Hunger Strikes and the relentless violence of the mid and late Eighties. He was the vital element in helping to bring Sinn Fein in from the cold when he undertook the dialogue with Gerry Adams, for which he was widely and unfairly criticised at the time. The Hume Adams Dialogue eventually found fruition in the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 with its crucial reference to Britain having “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland,” a declaration that led some months later to the IRA Ceasefire and all that subsequently flowed from it.
Throughout he was consistent. The Irish Times has reprinted an article a young Hume wrote in 1964 – well before the “Troubles”- in which he criticised existing traditional nationalist attitudes, called for more involvement in the political process and an acknowledgement that the Unionist tradition in the North was as strong and legitimate as the nationalist one, arguing that the only alternative to accepting the Constitutional position was that of Sinn Fein. He suggested also that for progress to be made Unionists had to accept and respond to olive branches the nationalist side might make. Failure to do so and end discrimination could only exacerbate and harden attitudes. Adherence to non-violence and to the recognition of the legitimacy of both traditions was and remained the central tenets of his approach. It was a short step to the concept of the Agreed Ireland that he saw begin to emerge as the violence ceased.
He was persistent; he never gave up, despite setbacks. After decades of peace, younger people have little concept of just how grim the situation in the North was during the Troubles era. Tribal loyalties were entrenched and strong, particularly on the Unionist side, which produced no major political figure for decades except Paisley, who wielded a wrecking ball through the various attempts at political settlement and compromise. And inevitably violence begat a steadily escalating violence. Marches generated counter demonstrations – and violence. Nationalist rioting provoked a weaponised RUC and drew in the British Army. Rioting intensified. The Provos emerged. The first Army casualty was in February 1971. The violence ground on reaching new heights after the Internment of Nationalists in August 1971.
The killings on Bloody Sunday during a peaceful Civil Rights March in Derry were a new low. Bloody Sunday galvanised Nationalists and further polarised the communities. Britain, now directly involved politically, sought, together with the Irish government, a political settlement along the principles advocated by John Hume. The result was the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement and the first attempt at power sharing. It was brought down by a Loyalist strike in 1974.
Violence, alienation and polarisation were now chronic and the next decade was to feature nothing beyond a continuing grisly cycle of violence, with landmark atrocities, ten IRA hunger strikers starving to death, and an effective military stalemate. It was not a period for optimism. Yet through all this John Hume campaigned on as a voice of moderation, by now the dominant Nationalist politician, an MEP and one continually exploring new possible initiatives to find a solution including international and specifically US involvement.
My limited direct contacts with John were at this stage. As First Secretary in the Irish Embassy in Washington D.C. from 1975 to 1977 I got to know John at the beginning of his odyssey to win over top Irish American politicians to influence official US policy on Northern Ireland towards the non-violent approach he was advocating. Indeed he and his wife Pat stayed with us during one of his first visits. He was from the start determined and focussed. He cut an impressive figure to all who met him. Yet it was a formidable task. The IRA had vocal supporters and advocates among the Irish American community and politicians were initially leery about getting involved. Official US policy was to avoid involvement in the internal affairs of their closest ally – the UK – and institutionally the USA was unsympathetic to Irish nationalism. Yet John persevered, working closely with the Irish Embassy and Irish diplomats. He was extraordinarily successful. Anyone interested should read Maurice Fitzpatrick’s book “John Hume in America.”
By the late 1980’s the Anglo-Irish Agreement had signalled a new departure and era of cooperation between London and Dublin. Yet the violence and polarisation persisted. So too John Hume’s quest for peace. Hence his dialogue with Gerry Adams. He was widely criticised, criticism which hurt. Yet as historian Ronan Fanning remarked to me at the time “Somebody has to talk to them.” Those talks contributed vitally to the hard won Peace in the North that eventually emerged. While it involved many people and elements for John Hume above all it was a signal and crowning success.
The debt we owe him is enormous.