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.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club that later became synonymous with Hillsborough has dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor