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John Hume 1937-2020

John Hume, who died early today at the age of eighty-three, was the second leader of the SDLP, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, a Westminster MP and a member of the European Parliament. He received the Nobel Prize along with David Trimble in 1998 for his work for peace in Northern Ireland. Before his direct involvement in politics began he had been active in the credit union movement and in co-operative employment initiatives in his native Derry, was in at the start of the civil rights movement and – less memorably perhaps – taught one of the editors of the Dublin Review of Books history in St Columb’s College in 1964. Below we republish an extract from a review by Michael Lillis  of two books about Hume that appeared in our May 2018 issue. The books are Maurice Fitzpatrick’s John Hume in America: from Derry to DC and John Hume in His Own Words, edited by Seán Farren.

It would be difficult to argue against the proposition that John Hume has been the most important and influential political leader in Ireland over the past forty years. He has had more influence than anyone else on every taoiseach from Jack Lynch to Bertie Ahern and on every leader of the opposition in the Dáil. He has devised an entire political vocabulary and a multi-layered vision for Northern Ireland that have been adopted in every serious attempt at a settlement, not alone by the SDLP but by every other protagonist from the successive Irish and British governments to unionists of all brands, even to loyalists and Sinn Féin, and of course across the debate in the South. His has become the language for dealing with Northern Ireland throughout the political spectrum in the US, in the EU and in journalism and academic discourse. His extraordinary creativity and moral force have been endlessly acknowledged, for example through the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to him and David Trimble, the Gandhi Prize and (his personal favourite) the Martin Luther King Prize. In 2010 he was elected “Ireland’s Greatest” in an RTÉ poll of its viewers seeking to identify the greatest Irish person in history.

Today John Hume is occluded by illness from politics, the price he and his wife Pat have paid for their personal sacrifices for peace and for John’s literally unwearying political and intellectual toil under the unrelenting pressure of the horrors and setbacks of a generation at the very heart of the crisis of Northern Ireland of thirty years.

A sense of the scale of his achievements may be captured by a simple recital of some of the political transformations of which he was the principal inspiration and driving force.

Among these are the reinvention and repositioning of nationalist politics in the late 1960s from the jaded anti-partitionist slogans of the traditional Nationalist Party of Northern Ireland to the total engagement with the civil rights campaign and an unyielding policy of non-violence, of power-sharing with unionism and the Irish dimension which began with a few articles by Hume in the The Irish Times in 1964. While he endlessly created new tactics and scenarios for progress, he never departed from that analysis or from those principles.

There is also his trenchant confrontation of the British and Stormont governments’ Pavlovian policies of oppression, internment without trial and the abuse of hundreds of innocent men at the beginning of the 1970s and the cold-blooded massacre of Bloody Sunday. The IRA’s incipient campaign of violence was galvanised by these disastrous security projects and it continued to destroy the hopes for many hundreds of thousands of people for an ordinary life for themselves and for their children throughout the following cycles.

The crisis of 1972 forced the suspension of Stormont and facilitated the direct inspiration by Hume of all that was positive in the new thinking behind secretary of state William Whitelaw’s White Paper of March 1973, itself for the most part an anthology of what later became known as Humespeak: power-sharing within Northern Ireland, North-South partnership, Anglo-Irish partnership, a Bill of Rights. The White Paper led in turn to the creation of the briefly-lived power-sharing Sunningdale government, of which Hume was the most dynamic member, and to the eventually aborted negotiation of the North-South Council of Ireland. It was nevertheless a moment of almost dizzy hope, as eloquently recalled by Ian Doherty in a recent drb review of Noel Dorr’s excellent book Sunningdale http://www.drb.ie/essays/instead-of-blood. He equally recalled the disaster of a few months later: “I was twenty-one years old at the time and can still remember the feeling of devastation and despair.”

Inexcusably, all the hope of that time was betrayed by the surrender by the British government of Harold Wilson and Merlyn Rees in endorsing the British army’s cowardly refusal to confront he loyalist workers’ strike of May 1974 and equally by Seamus Mallon’s “slow learners” of the Provisional IRA who were as ferociously determined to destroy Sunningdale by their deliberately intensified campaign of assassination and bombing as were the killers of the UDA and UVF.

A bleak season of violence and despair for politics continued for several years under secretaries of state Rees and Mason, who placed the objective of military defeat of the IRA, in which they were unsuccessful, above all other, including political, priorities. They effectively reinstituted and reinforced the unionist veto on any political progress whatever. The Provisionals’ message to young nationalists was that only their campaign of violence offered any possibility of vengeance and that any political engagement with Britain other than pursuing “Brits out” with violence was a waste of time and effort; unsurprisingly this view gained plausibility. Undaunted, from the political wilderness Hume’s inexhaustible creativity responded with two ground-breaking longer-term initiatives. First, working through the “Four Horsemen” in the US, the all-powerful speaker of the house Tip O Neill, Senators Ted Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Hugh Carey, governor of New York state, and harnessing the resources of Irish diplomacy , he breached the British veto on any US government involvement in Northern Ireland which had been impermeable since partition.

I had the good fortune to be the political counsellor in our embassy in Washington at the time: I became part of the team of Hume, the Four Horsemen and their chiefs of staff, and crucially Robert Hunter of the National Security Council in the Carter White House, who wrestled over six months on a text with the recalcitrant team from the British embassy and the State Department, who were backed by discouraging phone calls from prime minister Jim Callaghan to President Jimmy Carter. Then, overriding the nay-sayers, in his unprecedented statement of August 1977, President Carter called for a human-rights-based solution acceptable to Dublin and London and the divided community in Northern Ireland (the Hume agenda) and for Irish-Americans not to support violence in Ireland (also the Hume agenda). The “Carter Initiative” had been strenuously opposed by London at the highest level. It prefigured both the role of President Reagan in persuading Margaret Thatcher to commit to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and the launching of the carnival events of succeeding St Patrick’s Days, both in the White House and the US Congress, which ensured a US role on Northern Ireland for a generation, culminating in President Clinton’s indispensable intervention in fostering the Good Friday accord.

Hume’s second major achievement was the generous and statesmanlike redefinition of the constitutional nationalist consensus in the New Ireland Forum report of 1984, which placed the principles of partnership, human rights, equality of esteem, acknowledgement of the British rights and identity of unionists and consent ‑ drafted by Hume in his home in the Bogside in my presence ‑ at the heart of the policy of all succeeding Dublin governments in precisely the words of his own lexicon. Hume and FitzGerald had wanted the Forum report to propose only the section on those principles for the purpose of opening negotiations on a treaty with London and not to prescribe specific models (unity, confederation etc), but Charles Haughey obdurately insisted on the single objective of a unitary state. This had the effect of obscuring the more generous vision which the forum (including Mr Haughey) had held out and sadly devalued its impact on both the unionists and Margaret Thatcher.

Hume contributed intellectually and politically to the eventual acceptance by Mrs Thatcher of a role for the Irish government in the search for a solution to the problem of Northern Ireland, as epitomised in her promising “teapot” summit meeting with taoiseach Charles Haughey of December 1980 through the famous and ingenious formula of “the totality of relations” between Britain and Ireland. Hume was enthusiastic. For years he had been promoting such a partnership as the necessary platform for hope. He had from the outset seen the sovereignty of the independent Irish state (denied by the Provisionals and despised by unionists) as the strongest asset in the arsenal of democratic nationalism in its dealings with Britain; he had promoted it at Sunningdale and had carefully fostered it in a way which ensured its centrality to every effort that he and the SDLP had followed ever since. He had worked closely, both publicly and confidentially, with the leadership of the main political parties in the South regardless of their rivalries and Civil War legacies and had gained their confidence as the key political leader of constitutional Northern nationalism. Tragically, events intervened – the hunger strikes in the prisons in Northern Ireland, woefully mismanaged by Britain and determinedly exploited by the Provisional IRA (“the pornography of death” was one of Hume’s descriptions of their campaign); the overselling at home of the significance of the “totality of relations” by some of Mr Haughey’s colleagues as portending (an inconceivable) support for Irish unity on the part of Mrs Thatcher’s government and, most disastrously, in the apparent acquiescence of Mr Haughey in the invasion of the Falkland Islands (“Islas Malvinas”) by the torturing and “disappearing” military dictatorship of Argentina.

This was the barren situation inherited by Garret FitzGerald and Dick Spring as the newly elected taoiseach and tánaiste at the end of 1982. Both had worked closely with Hume for many years and intensively in the deliberations of the New Ireland Forum. FitzGerald gave to the issue of Northern Ireland a priority in time and resources which overrode all other challenges. I know that this frustrated several of his ministers, who had other front-line concerns and eventually undermined, in their view, the electoral fortunes of their administration. Hume was FitzGerald’s closest, if behind-the-scenes, partner. In September 1983, with the approval of FitzGerald and Hume, I suggested to my British civil servant co-chairman of the Co-ordinating Committee of the Irish-British Intergovernmental Council, Sir David Goodall, that the only remaining hope for creating stability in the worsening chaos of Northern Ireland lay in bringing the political, security and judicial resources of Dublin into the system of government of Northern Ireland. He reported to Mrs Thatcher and returned within two weeks with questions and suggestions about changing Articles 2 and 3 of our constitution. There followed secret negotiations between two small teams of senior officials (I was one) led by the cabinet secretaries of both governments, Dermot Nally and Robert Armstrong, but personally and intensively directed by FitzGerald and Thatcher. The negotiators met on thirty-one occasions over two years in sessions which regularly lasted more than two full days, sometimes in offices in the two capitals but more frequently in secluded country houses alternatively in Ireland or England. Remarkably there were no leaks from either team or from their governments. Hume alone in the SDLP was regularly briefed and consulted by the taoiseach and his closest colleagues and more frequently by the Irish officials involved in the talks (usually Sean Donlon or myself). Despite the uncomfortable difficulty this created with his most important SDLP colleagues, Hume meticulously observed confidentiality. His influence was nevertheless paramount. There were several FitzGerald-Thatcher summit meetings and even more fruitful and discreet but intense encounters en marge of European Council meetings. There were in fact no leaks of actual content from either side, although Mrs Thatcher’s unthinking knee-jerk “Out, Out, Out” declaration in November 1984 rejecting Irish unity, an all-Ireland confederation and joint authority as (some, not all) possible outcomes fostered by the forum actually concealed her reluctant and fitful approval of the secret talks continuing. This episode allowed Mr Haughey to make hay in the Dáil where, using all his considerable forensic parliamentary abilities, he thunderously denounced FitzGerald’s purported naiveté and weakness. FitzGerald’s patience in the face of this onslaught was based on his confidence that the actual talks were making serious progress and that Mrs Thatcher had made a tactical if unintended misstep which she would have to repair. This came about in several instances but especially in her meetings with President Reagan in February 1985 and in her address to the joint session of the Houses of Congress, the direct result of effective lobbying of the president by Speaker O’Neill, by Irish diplomacy (notably by former ambassador Sean Donlon, who was close to Reagan) and of course by Hume. As FitzGerald had privately predicted, the tempo and the progress of the talks were enhanced. The final result was the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 15th, 1985, which gave Dublin a highly intrusive role in all the processes of government of Northern Ireland through a ministerial council and a secretariat based in Belfast ‑ more intrusive even than the role it would enjoy under the later Good Friday accord of 1998. This met Hume’s fundamental criterion of being “unboycottable” by any unionist veto, while it promoted devolution to a Northern Ireland assembly by holding out the prospect that, where there was power-sharing agreement that specific issues could be devolved to that assembly, those issues would be removed from the remit of the ministerial council and secretariat so long as power-sharing survived (otherwise those issues would revert again to the agreement’s jurisdiction).

Hume hailed the constitutional provision of the agreement whereby the UK government undertook to legislate in parliament for Irish unity if a majority in Northern Ireland wished for a change in the existing status of Northern Ireland ‑ as definitive and unchallengeable proof that it had confirmed that it had no strategic or “selfish” intention to retain Northern Ireland within the UK. He passionately urged this on the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin as removing any pretext for continuing their campaign of violence. In response the Provisionals intensified their campaign, as they had done after Sunningdale, and in an effort to provoke further unionist “alienation”, targeted several unionist middle-class towns and neighbourhoods which previously had been relatively immune from republican violence. The unionist response to the agreement was convulsed and hysterical, as exemplified by the demonstration by over 100,000 people in Belfast led by Rev Ian Paisley, with his rallying cry that unionists would “Never, Never, Never” accept it. Mrs Thatcher and her government stood implacably by the agreement in the face of this furore and it was formally registered by the Irish and British governments as an international treaty at the UN. The US government and Congress established the International Fund for Ireland. The RUC, led by its assertively independent chief constable, Jack Hermon, came under vicious attack from loyalists throughout Northern Ireland for months and, though eight hundred of its members had to leave their homes, they too held firm.

Naturally Northern nationalists who had suffered discrimination and humiliation at the hands of unionists for most of the previous sixty years were gratified and support in the South was overwhelming. The Anglo-Irish Secretariat in Belfast (I was Irish joint secretary; Daithi Ó Ceallaigh, later ambassador in London, and the late Noel Ryan of the Department of Justice were my closest colleagues) was for several months barracked around the clock by hundreds and frequently thousands of shouting and threatening protesters, but it got on with its work of “resolving differences” between Irish proposals, many of them transmitted to us by Hume through Iveagh House, and the respective British responses. The agreement began to produce results on flags and emblems, on police and UDR behaviour and reform, on discrimination in employment, on parades, on the laws on hatred, on the prisons and individual prisoners, on urban renewal (for example demolition of the notorious ghettoes Divis and Rossville Flats), on security co-operation, on the economy and on the Irish language and other cultural legacies. The late Peter Barry, minister for foreign affairs, the Irish government’s representative on the agreement’s ministerial council, guided our efforts with dogged and unyielding determination. Mr Haughey and his party denounced and opposed the agreement in the Dáil even though some of his party members later opposed his position. When he sent his close associate Brian Lenihan to Washington to win support for his position he was cold-shouldered by the Reagan White House and by Hume’s Four Horsemen. Hume and the SDLP were for the first time openly critical of Mr Haughey who, when re-elected taoiseach in 1987, went on to work the agreement for his government’s political advantage. It was unfortunate that Fianna Fáil had opposed it in 1985 as their support back then would have enormously facilitated Hume’s task of using the breakthrough of 1985 as a major constitutional nationalist achievement in his unceasing attempts to persuade the IRA of the strength of his constitutional argument (the same considerations were at the heart of his case on Irish self-determination to Gerry Adams in 1994).

The completion of Hume’s great mission came in the years of the “peace process” leading to the Good Friday Agreement and its endorsement by the St Andrew’s Agreement. At its heart were the Hume-Adams talks, perhaps the most controversial but conclusive initiative of his entire career. An intermediate facilitator was the significant statement by secretary of state Peter Brooke based directly on Hume’s repeated interpretation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement that Britain had no longer any “selfish political or strategic interest in remaining in Ireland”. Hume stated his reasons for embarking on his dialogue with Adams in 1991 in a speech in the House of Commons two years later: “Unfortunately, there are in our society a substantial number of people who vote for political organisations which support violence and what they call ‘armed struggle’. If one happens to be a public representative in that society, does one not have the responsibility to do everything in one’s power to try to bring that violence to an end, in particular by talking to people?” He was reviled for this, against a background of continuing IRA violence, perhaps understandably by unionists whom IRA violence prevented from seeing any possible merit in any circumstances in trying to engage with the Provisionals, but even more stridently by most of the columnists of the leading newspaper in the South, the Sunday Independent, and by many others.

The anniversary celebrations of the Good Friday Agreement have dominated the news in Ireland North and South for several weeks, though significantly and depressingly, this has hardly mentioned in the main British media. The celebrations have featured reminiscences and fascinating disclosures by the principal personalities, political leaders and officials involved in the historic negotiations, to which the present reviewer, who was not involved at any point, can add nothing other than to consider their achievements against Hume’s legacy, both strategic and tactical, over the previous thirty years. Bertie Ahern played an outstanding leadership role, brilliantly assisted by his adviser Dr Martin Mansergh and, in the run-up period, the gifted civil servants Seán Ó Huigínn, Dermot Gallagher, Paddy Teahan and Tim Dalton were hugely important. Tony Blair showed more imagination than any previous British prime minister, as did his indefatigable chief of staff Jonathan Powell. David Trimble, the unionist leader, deserves heroic status for saving the process from collapse through overcoming his own and his colleagues’ scepticism, by his tenacity and lucidity of purpose. President Bill Clinton developed an astonishingly sophisticated insider’s grasp of all the complexities of Northern Ireland and Senator George Mitchell, as chairman of the negotiations, exemplified patience and determination of almost saint-like character.

Hume had given to the goal of persuading the IRA to end its campaign of violence the highest priority since it began. Another fundamental goal was an inclusive solution, with power-sharing between nationalists and unionists within Northern Ireland at its core and the acceptance of consent in the North and across the North and the South as the only criteria for constitutional change and self-determination on the island of Ireland. His second fundamental goal was the establishment of institutional structures for co-operation and development between North and South in Ireland. His third was creating and sustaining a structure for decision-making partnership between Ireland and the UK within the larger EU framework. He had repeatedly defined “reconciliation” as the ultimate objective of his mission.

These goals were all achieved, beginning with the IRA ceasefire of 1994 resulting from the Hume-Adams dialogue and the Downing Street Declaration of prime ministers Albert Reynolds and John Major of December 15th, 1993 based on the latest Hume-Adams statement of September 25th, 1993 and in the later paramilitary decommissioning by the Provisional IRA as well as in symmetrical developments on the loyalist paramilitary side. Hume’s goals are articulated and structurally embedded in the famous three strands of the Good Friday Agreement. The first major step towards reconciliation lay in the approval by simultaneous referenda North and South on May 22nd, 1998 of the agreement and the withdrawal of the territorial claim on Northern Ireland by referendum from the constitution of the South. This confirmed the acceptance by all parties to the agreement, including the Southern electorate, including Sinn Féin, of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, while retaining the aspiration of Irish nationalism to achieving the political unity of Ireland by agreement.

Without exception, all of these outcomes had been designed and publicly proposed in detail by Hume over many years and he and Seamus Mallon, a towering figure in those negotiations and in the nationalist leadership for years, had pressed for their adoption in the Good Friday Agreement itself . They succeeded.

A year ago the film-maker Maurice Fitzpatrick launched an outstanding film narrated by Liam Neeson, In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America. With original interviews with President Jimmy Carter, former taoiseach Bertie Ahern and former British prime ministers John Major and Tony Blair, as well as David Trimble and Jeffrey Donaldson for the unionists and Gerry Adams for Sinn Féin, it provides an enthralling account of Hume’s brilliant American initiative of the mid-seventies when he broke through the British veto on any initiative whatever on Northern Ireland by the United States, which had lasted since Partition. His success eventually paved the way for the indispensable role played by President Clinton in the Good Friday Agreement. The central interview with Clinton discloses a degree of sophistication about the North which few if any taoisigh or journalists of ours could match. Clinton based his risky involvement (for example the Adams visa, which almost caused a breakdown between the US and its closest military ally, Britain) squarely on his unquestioning trust in John Hume’s judgement. The interviews with Eamonn McCann and Seamus Mallon bring a hard up-to-date reality to the narrative in their challenges to the grotesque rewriting of history by Sinn Féin in recent times.

Fitzpatrick has more recently published a book with a similar title, John Hume in America: From Derry to DC, which covers these themes and events in much more detail but has a much wider canvas, being the first political biography of Hume’s entire career. Fitzpatrick writes with momentum, interpolating all the great themes of Hume’s public life, in other words the history of Ireland over the past forty years, with anecdote and controversy. One of the many treasures that he has dug up is an extraordinary  piece of insight by the late Conor Cruise O’ Brien written in 2000 with hostile intent, but paradoxically pointing up Hume’s unique genius perhaps more effectively than anything intended to flatter or praise Hume that I have ever seen:

John Hume has had more influence on the political life of this whole island, and on Anglo-Irish relations, than any of the six Taoisigh who have governed in the Republic since the premiership of Sean Lemass (1959-66) ... John Hume’s most brilliant achievement in the politics of these islands was the breakthrough which led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 ... The insight that led to the upgrading of the nationalists and the downgrading of the unionists was an exceptionally brilliant one. The insight was that nationalists could get more from the British by asking for the moment for less than they had ever asked before … Every informed person knew that the real architect of the modified nationalist claim was John Hume. Only he had the authority to scale down the nationalist demand, and only he had the political genius to see that the scaling down was the key to the advancement of the nationalist cause. (Irish Independent, September 2nd, 2000)

John Hume in His Own Words, edited by Seán Farren, is a collection of long and shorter excerpts from Hume’s most important speeches and articles over the years. I was in his presence on occasion as he prepared some of those words: he approached this task with profound seriousness which sometimes took the form of the uninterruptible silence of deep reflection for two hours or even longer at a time. Then he would be ready to write. Those introspective concentrations were valuable exercises in self-challenging meditation and the development of tactics and strategy, as is manifest in the unfailingly high quality and immediacy of Hume’s thought as reflected throughout this collection. For this reviewer it is a profound and thought-provoking book to be digested one chapter at a time, leaving time for periods of reflection afterwards, a little like Hume’s own

John Hume in His Own Words decisively rebuts the facile slur that Hume’s persuasions were no more than repetitions of a “single transferable speech”; rather they are a record of his confrontation of a succession of disasters, challenges and opportunities, articulated with clarity and underpinned with principle. The collection also illustrates his interest in and promotion of other causes: the credit union movement, job-creating foreign investment and the Common Agricultural Policy.

This is a rich compendium, though one reads it today with a sense of unease. It is brilliantly edited and Sean Farren, a close companion of Hume’s for many years, provides an invaluable commentary for the reader which is always both illuminating and incisive.

Originally published May 2018; republished (in part) August 3rd, 2020.