Hume steers for peace in risky waters

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LAST WEEKEND, Eamonn McCann, a left-wing journalist and activist, was selling Socialist Worker in Shipquay Street, Londonderry, when a neighbour approached him. 'Here,' he said, 'you'll never guess who I just saw going into John Hume's house.' McCann rang the Dublin Sunday Tribune, breaking the story of the latest meeting between John Hume, leader of constitutional nationalism in Northern Ireland, and Gerry Adams, the most important figure in unconstitutional republicanism.

Since that Saturday meeting, speculation has raged: what is Hume up to? Why is he issuing agreed statements with Adams? What's going on?

Hume, the SDLP leader, is reluctant to be drawn into detail about the talks. 'Look,' he told the Independent on Sunday, 'it's a highly sensitive process. I am working for a lasting peace. There are only two possible outcomes: one is that it will fail, and the other is that it will succeed.

'If it fails nothing has changed, but if it succeeds the whole atmosphere has changed. I am prepared to explore that possibility with Mr Adams, and I think it is my duty to do so.'

Reaction to the meeting has ranged from furious Unionist denunciation to warm endorsement of his actions, but between these two poles there is considerable bewilderment about the significance of it all. There is no talk of immediate IRA ceasefires, but Hume clearly hopes that at some stage the republicans will stop using force, and that loyalists and security forces will follow suit.

He repeatedly refers questioners to the agreed statement. Critics have seized on the phrase that 'we accept that the Irish people as a whole have a right to self- determination', one Dublin politician branding it 'provo-speak'. Hume is 'particularly insulted' by this.

The statement, read as a whole, contains language of a type not usually associated with Sinn Fein. A key section declares: 'We have told each other that we see the task of reaching agreement on a peaceful and democratic accord for all on this island as our primary challenge. We both recognise that such a new agreement is only achievable and viable if it can earn and enjoy the allegiance of the different traditions on this island, by accommodating diversity and providing for national reconciliation.'

As supporters and critics pore over the statement, Hume is aware of the difficulties and dangers of the enterprise. What sustains him in the face of so much criticism and puzzlement is his international reputation as a lifelong opponent of violence. Many observers who are worried about it are nonetheless prepared to trust his judgement, finding it deeply improbable that he would give comfort to men of violence.

The risks go beyond the merely political. Some loyalist politicians, hamming it up in the local election campaign, have been particularly inflammatory, speaking of an SDLP-IRA coalition and denouncing 'Mr Hume and his IRA-Sinn Fein friends'.

This is dangerous talk. The Ulster Defence Association, the main loyalist terror group, regularly tells journalists of its hatred for the SDLP in general and Hume in particular. Homes of SDLP councillors have been firebombed and security sources say a carload of armed loyalists arrested recently were on a mission to assassinate an SDLP politician.

The talks, and the loyalist political accusations, increase the likelihood of such attacks, since the violent loyalists see them as confirming their simplistic belief that all Catholics - SDLP, IRA, the church, everyone - are locked together in a conspiracy against the Protestant cause.

The idea of non-violent nationalist politicians maintaining contact with underground republican movements has historical sanction in Ireland: O'Connell did it, and so did Parnell. Hume's sporadic attempts to talk republicans into giving up violence date back as far as 1972, and in 1988 he and Adams met regularly over a period of months and exchanged a series of detailed documents.

After more than 20 years the IRA campaign shows no sign of abating. Events such as the London bombing have borne out the view that the IRA will not be stopped by military means alone.

The bombings go on, but over the years there have been significant changes in republican thinking. It is not much of a caricature to say that in the early days the philosophy was one of 'the Protestants don't count, just get the Brits out'. Sinn Fein today presents a different picture. Adams and other republican theorists can outline a philosophy which, though abhorrent to many, is nonetheless closely detailed, thoughtful and cohesive.

They pride themselves on their theory and analysis. That theory is also evolving and developing: republican leaders are now, for example, prepared to say that the British presence is not actively colonial, and that Britain has no economic or defence interests in remaining in Ireland.

They have also been reflecting much more on the question of the Protestants and think more in terms of agreement and the accommodation of diversity than they once did. Some at least of this may be due to the influence of John Hume.

If the republicans cannot be defeated militarily, then it makes sense to tackle them by force of reason as well. This appears to be the tortuous and hazardous process in which John Hume is engaged.

(Photograph omitted)