Nation shall Humespeak unto nation

JOHN HUME, PEACEMAKER by George Drower, Gollancz pounds 16.99

THESE days, in interviews, John Hume not only repeats himself but repeatedly acknowledges that he is doing so: "as I've said before, agreement threatens no one", "as I've said time and again, it is not territory that must be united but people". A former teacher, Hume seems to believe that political progress can be learned by rote. And, in truth, experience has all but borne out that belief. To a quite extraordinary degree, his mantras have become the agenda for two sovereign governments, the British and the Irish, as they attempt to solve their most difficult problem, that of Northern Ireland.

John Hume's prominence, out of all proportion to the size of his electoral base, has as much to do with persistence as with brilliance. For most of the last 25 years he has filled a political vacuum left by the outlaw status of Sinn Fein on the one hand and the reactive, defensive nature of Ulster Unionism on the other. Often, the capacious linguistic construct universally known as Humespeak, wrapping the concerns of a local tribal leader in the colours of European enlightenment, has been the only form of mainstream political articulation that has even tried to connect the fiercely intimate civil conflict with the outside world.

Admirable as Hume's achievement has been, though, it is easy to forget that Humespeak has monopolised political conversation at least partly by drowning out other voices, even within his own Social Democratic and Labour Party. Established in 1970 with the aim of being left-of-centre and non-sectarian, the party gradually lost its socialist and labourite components. Of the founders of the SDLP, two (Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin) left in the late 1970s in despair at the party's reversion to traditional nationalism, another one (Ivan Cooper) retired from politics altogether, and one (Austin Currie) left Northern Ireland and is now a junior minister in the Irish government.

Only Hume remains, and, as even George Drower's near-hagiography acknowledges, "he has failed to detach the party from its image of a Catholic nationalist organisation". The grandiloquence of Humespeak, indeed, has sometimes been a cover for quite hardline traditional nationalism.

For instance, in the two Westminster by-elections of 1981, fought at the height of the IRA hunger strikes, the SDLP gave Sinn Fein a clear run at the nationalist vote in Fermanagh-South Tyrone (not Fermanagh South, as Drower twice calls it, adding to such careless mistakes as the naming of Democratic Unionist MP William McCrea as "Robert McCrea" and the bizarre description of the most famous living Irish poet as "Oxford poet Seamus Heaney"). Hume's failure at times of crisis to distance himself from the visceral orthodoxies of his tribe suggests a political legacy that is rather more complex than Drower's speculation that he may be "the greatest Irish politician ever".

Drower's book, though, is clearly published in anticipation of a Nobel Peace Prize for its subject (the last chapter is called "Nobel candidate"), tilting it away from complex analysis and towards eulogy. Based on one interview with Hume and a diligent reading of newspaper files, supplemented by quotes from friends and admirers, it is more an intelligent summary of political developments in Northern Ireland in the last 30 years than an intimate biography.

From the book, in fact, we learn very little about John Hume that is not already on the public record. What does emerge very strongly, though, is the extraordinary degree to which the public record itself is a reflection of Hume's strategic thinking. Drower suggests, for instance, that when former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke uttered the key phrase that Britain "no longer has a selfish strategic or economic interest" in remaining in Northern Ireland, the words had been put in his mouth by John Hume. Whether or not that is precisely the case, it is clear that it is Hume's ability both to forge alliances in Europe and America and to stretch language over an abyss of conflicting desires that has created the current possibility of peace.

Hume's achievement, indeed, is one which would emerge more clearly from a less reverential book, precisely because it is an achievement founded on an ability to negotiate away the difference between guilt and innocence, between success and failure. His very failure to reach across the sectarian divide and deal with unionism forced him inwards, into the dark heart of his own Catholic nationalism. For almost a decade from 1985 onwards, Hume persistently and courageously tried to engage the IRA and Sinn Fein in dialogue, convinced as always that by repeating his political mantras, by exploiting the fruitful paradoxes of language, he could bridge the impossible gap between democratic politics and violent conspiracy.

The man once described by Ian Paisley's wife Eileen as a "political Jesuit twister" used all his Jesuitical skills to twist despair into hope. It is as yet a tentative achievement, and the avoidance of complacency about it is not helped by Drower's virtual canonisation of Hume for his "great acts of Christian leadership". If it is consolidated, and if John Hume leads Irish nationalism to a historic settlement, he will deserve not just peace prizes but a biography complex enough to measure the scale of his brilliant success against the reality of his previous failures.

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