Nobel Prize: Shrewd politician who broke taboos

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The Independent Online
THE HALL of John Hume's weekend retreat in Donegal is virtually papered with scrolls, citations, honorary degrees and doctorates from universities and other institutions in America and all over the world. As one of the most influential and admired Irishmen in the world, he is no stranger to awards and international recognition.

The Nobel Peace Prize is, however, the culmination of a long political career that began at the start of the Troubles and has now, hopefully, seen Northern Ireland through to the start of a whole new era of peace and progress.

On a political level he has headed a party, the largest in northern nationalism, through some appalling times, and has guided it home to become one of the central props of the new arrangements at Stormont.

At another level he has provided, or helped to provide, many of the concepts upon which this new constitutional architecture is founded.

He has stuck always to the principle of non-violence. He has internationalised the conflict, to include the US and other elements in its resolution; and he provided the conceptual framework for the negotiations of recent years. He provided that framework by laying down the idea that cracking the Northern Ireland problem required dealing with three sets of relationships: those between Unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland; those between Ireland north and south; and those between Britain and Ireland. The new political geography agreed to in the Good Friday Agreement is based on that model.

Most of that work has been based on logic and rational thinking, but when the historians come to look back on his role they will doubtless deal with his pivotal role in the peace process.

There his contribution was based not just on shrewd political analysis but also on intuition and passion.

The peace process, once the most controversial of projects, has now become the essence of politics in Northern Ireland. It was based on overthrowing one of the strongest political orthodoxies in Ireland: that respectable mainstream politicians should not talk to representatives of the men of violence.

The breaking of that taboo was followed by the establishment of a new political principle: that of inclusion. In this new theory stability could be en-sured only by drawing into the mainstream as many elements as possible; the gamble being taken was that doing so would not pollute that mainstream but rather would encourage formerly violent elements to mutate gradually towards democracy.

The championing of these once heretical ideas has taken its toll on Hume, who has spent a full 30 years in a frontline that has been often personally as well as politically dangerous. Opinion polls north and south consistently indicate that he is the most admired political figure in Ireland: the Nobel prize indicates that the international community shares that regard.




Born 18 January 1937

SDLP MP for Foyle since 1983

SDLP leader since 1979

Married Patricia Hone 1960 (two sons, three daughters)