Letters that cry out for peace in Ulster: David McKittrick examines the bulging post-bag of John Hume in the wake of his peace talks with the Sinn Fein president

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The Independent Online
THE correspondence received by John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, on the talks process with the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, is stored in his Londonderry office in buff envelopes, folders and shopping bags.

Consisting of 1,169 letters, notes, get-well and other cards, the size of the post-bag is unprecedented for an Irish MP. It reveals the depth of the desire for peace in Ireland, for the vast majority contain pleas for an end to violence.

Much of the flood came after the rejection of the Hume-Adams initiative by the British and Irish governments, with a fresh wave after the SDLP leader was taken to hospital suffering from exhaustion. Last week Mr Hume agreed to allow the Independent to examine his post-bag.

As well as the intense emotion evident in many of the letters and cards, the post-bag has great political significance, in that it indicates how strongly nationalist Ireland is in favour of the SDLP leader's approach.

This wave of feeling clearly helps to explain the Dublin government's hasty change of policy from rejecting the initiative to declaring that elements of it could provide the foundation for a peace formula. It is a fair assumption that the Irish government received an even bigger post-bag which was highly critical of its initial reaction to Hume-Adams.

The importance of this is that Dublin's policy on Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish affairs is now, unusually, driven in large measure by nationalist public opinion. This means the Irish government has little choice but to adhere to the approach of seeking an IRA cessation of violence as the immediate priority.

The post-bag contains messages of support from Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic and, more surprisingly, England, Scotland and Wales. Many mention the impact which Mr Hume's television appearances had on the writers. Perhaps 50 per cent of the mail comes from the Republic, indicating that the new perception that peace is a possibility has unlocked a wave of feeling in the south.

More mail has arrived since the Independent was given access to the correspondence. Of the letters and cards examined, about 30 of the messages are critical of Mr Hume, while about 150 are straightforward get-well cards. The rest are messages of support, commiseration and encouragement. Scores come from Catholic clergy, especially nuns. The majority come from Irish nationalists north and south, but there are many from people in Britain and several dozen from Northern Ireland Protestants. Dozens of the letters are signed by more than one person, with in several cases up to 30 signatures.

Leading article, page 17

Faint light at end of long, dark tunnel of hatred

Woman, Cookstown, Co Tyrone

As I am old enough to be your mother - I am in my late 70s - I feel it is right for me to write to you as a son for whom I have the most profound regard and respect. I have two grandchildren in Derry and in the years to come I know that they will have reason to be proud of their MP's success in achieving a just peace in our country.

Protestant woman, Fermanagh

I keep meaning to write to you each day but somehow the need was never greater than now. I just wanted, as a humble mother, to congratulate you for your guts and courage. I have always felt peace by talking is the only way forward.

We as a family have suffered at the hands of evil men. My son lost both legs and I was injured in another incident, and lost my job as a result. As you can see I could have every reason to hate but what good would that do? God bless and protect you now and always.

Woman, London

I thought I had given up praying years ago, but I find myself praying for peace in the North, with the hope that prayer as well as policy can make a difference.

Man, Co Galway

I have never written to a Northern Ireland politician in my life. The Irish tears you shed at the graveside yesterday are not the first, nor will be the last in your quest for peace. We send you into the cauldron of anger and fear and sorrow with our prayers.

Catholic woman, north Belfast

After the recent massacres we were in despair. Never in all the 24 years of the Troubles was I so afraid, we were plain terrified. In the darkest hours of recent weeks we had one tenacious hope and voice - you.

Nun, Essex

It does cut through my heart as I watch the news and hear of murder after murder. So, while you keep up the negotiations, I'll keep up the prayers.

Schoolgirl, Derry city

Many young like me have never seen Northern Ireland in peace. I have grown up with bombs, killings and terrible suffering.

Woman, Northern Ireland

Our family has suffered much in the last 20 years with the death of one brother and serious injury to another. We fully support you.

Minister, Edinburgh

I feel the treatment you had in Parliament from Mr Major was discourteous and disheartening. You really do have a great deal of support . . . and we extend our good wishes and prayers to you.

Irishman, Paris

I can imagine the discouragement and tension you must feel. Rest assured you have the support of men and women of goodwill both in Ireland and abroad.

Woman, south Belfast

I really believe, as you state, that this is the best chance of peace in the last 20 years. Please keep on trying. You are the only hope that my children have of living in a sectarian-free environment.

Man, Stoke-on-Trent

We are just an ordinary English family but our hearts go out to the decent people of Northern Ireland who certainly deserve more commitment from the politicians in Westminster and Dublin.

Woman, Co Dublin

I am 84 years of age and do not find letter writing easy. The self-seekers jockeying for power and the limelight are not fit to polish your shoes. May God reward your efforts - I hope he is not on the side of the big battalions]

Woman, Coventry

I lived in Northern Ireland for a while after the war. I have watched you now for years and my heart aches to see you looking older and tireder in your struggle. Please accept my heartfelt good wishes.

West Glamorgan letter with 40 signatories

A message of encouragement for your brave attitude and determination to bring peace.

Woman, Newry, Co Down

Thank you for our efforts. It is to their shame that little men seem to have been unable to measure up to the challenge.

Woman, Galway

The plain people North and South are with you. You are having a rough time just now but please hang on in there. You will have the reward in the end. It is hard to see that at the moment, but we are sure it will come.

Nun, Wales

For the sake of the rest of us Irish, please keep going, even if present official responses are not terribly encouraging.

Woman, Dublin

Having watched your brave attempts to bring peace, only one phrase leaps to mind - don't let the bastards get you down.

Nun, Dublin

Don't let the Bs get you down.

Woman, Republic

I had the great pleasure, a good many years ago when I was with Aer Lingus, to escort you from a flight into arrivals. I told you then how much I admired you and your work and you gave me a hug - let this card be a symbolic hug back. You are a man of hope and vision. Please don't let unimaginative minds get to you.

Man, Nottingham

How can there be any peace when those who are at the heart of the Troubles are locked outside and made to feel alienated from normal political structures? Major and his squalid crew would do anything to save their parliamentary skins.

Protestant woman, south Belfast

I am by accident of birth a Protestant who happens to live in the north of Ireland. It is time for all of us to think imaginatively of how to break out of our situation. You have offered leadership and I thank you for that.

Methodist, Devon

As a mere 69-year-old I wish to congratulate you for your sterling efforts to put a stop to the dreadful carnage in Ulster. Good luck.

Schoolgirl, Co Down

You probably won't take any notice of 'just a wee schoolgirl' but I just want you to know there are many more 13-year-olds who feel the same way.

Dublin priest

Well done, hang in there, don't let Dublin or London discourage you, it's the first time in 70 years the sewer has been unblocked. God bless.

Man, Armagh

Please take care of yourself. We need you - never more than now.

Man, Newport Pagnell

I am appalled that there are so many politicians at Westminster who are not prepared to listen and, worse, those who are intent on wrecking the process. I hope you will not be swayed by the baying of those who will not listen.

Carmelite nun, Co Dublin.

God bless you and give you the strength and courage to continue, in spite of setbacks, discouragement and oceans of cold water.


Get well soon . . . You are our light in the darkness in these evil times.

Man, Arhus, Denmark

Thank you for your work for peace, it must seem unrewarding in the wake of all the death and destruction but please continue.

Woman, Cheshire

I just want to say thank you for all your efforts. As a 70-year-old mother of six children I thank God I don't have to face the terrible things that Northern Ireland mothers do each day.

Armagh family

Take a good rest - we need you, Ireland needs you. Keep up your good work and never lose heart.

Galway family

Ireland needs you so badly and we are terrified that anything would happen to one of the few sane voices coming out of this country.

Woman, Rathmines, Dublin

I loathe, detest and despise all that Gerry Adams represents, but the sad fact is that he exists and must be acknowledged if it means peace.

Woman, Edinburgh

You have shown the greatest courage in persevering in the face of animosity, not to mention physical danger to yourself.

Man, Nenagh, Republic

I have little faith in the ability of some other politicians to find a solution to our troubles, though they seem mad keen to exclude your initiative from making further progress. If old hatreds are ever to be set aside we have to have communication with our old enemies.

West Belfast mother

It is galling . . . to realise that when so many people are being killed and thousands of others living in terror, many politicians appear to be afraid to make any compromise in case they lose face.

Man, Edinburgh

It is nothing less than an outrage that the Prime Minister has not followed up your lead, but since he depends on the support of Ulster Unionists I suppose little else could have been expected.

Man, Spain

You have done magnificently so far and we are all rooting for you.

Protestant woman, Hillsborough, Co Down

The Government says you couldn't talk to terrorists until they renounce violence, but how are they to arrive at the position of renouncing violence if no one ever engages in a dialogue with them . . .?

Woman, Cork

May you be granted continuing strength, from just one of many who hope.

Protestant, Republic

Don't lose heart, please keep up the effort.

Irishwoman, Northants

You have made a start to what I am sure will lead to peace eventually. Keep up the good work and to quote a recent engraving - 'Don't let the buggers get you down'.

Man, Dorset

This is only the second letter of support I've sent to a politician in 60 years. Please persevere despite all the discouragement.

Woman, Co Down

I am writing as a member of the majority community in Northern Ireland to let you know how much I appreciate your efforts. I think many ordinary people in both communities would share that hope.

Catholic woman

My family suffered in 1981 when we lost a brother on hunger strike. Your talks are the first glimmer of hope we have had for years.

Irishwoman, London

I have never known a peaceful Northern Ireland - you have given a glimmer of hope that, if I have children, they will see peace in their childhood.

Priest, Galway

Don't be deflected . . . most Irish people support and admire your efforts and feel aggrieved at the posturing of the governments.

Ex-member of security forces from Peterborough wishes Mr Hume a speedy recovery

Woman, north Belfast

I just felt I had to put pen to paper and say that everyone I talk to has complete faith and trust in what you're doing. Don't give up.

Man, Athlone, Republic

I write to express my admiration for your initiative. This is the first time I have written to a politician.

Protestant woman, Belfast

My husband is a Methodist minister who is glad I'm sending this note. I am ashamed I have never written before to say how I admire the way you have given of yourself.

Catholic woman, Co Derry

So many people that I've spoken to recently - Catholics and Protestants - have said that you are offering us hope and so many people are in support of you. We are so tired here of stale politics, of ego trips and of empty talks.

Woman, Co Wicklow

Never mind the begrudgers.

Man, Co Tyrone

I wish Gerry Adams and you great success in the momentous task you have set yourselves. I am certain that there is a groundswell of goodwill towards you among all people who genuinely desire peace.

Catholic woman, Belfast

The hope you have implanted in our minds of 'the cessation of all violence' has caught on like wildfire. It is on everyone's lips and has even invaded the minds of those who would oppose you.

Woman, Co Dublin

The man who ploughs the lonely furrow in the darkness must not falter, while the prima donna politicians strut. We, the ordinary people of Ireland, depend on the courage, integrity and moderation of John Hume.

Woman, Co Dublin

You are the beacon of truth amidst all the darkness and confusion, constant and profoundly moving. May God protect you.

Protestant man, Belfast

The gap between the Unionist politicians and the people who have voted for them in the past has never been greater.

Glamorgan man

Be courageous. Once the momentum is created for a settlement, no party dogma will hold on to its present political respectability in the face of a genuine peace.

Man, Co Antrim

I was shot by loyalist gunmen in west Belfast in 1978. I left the country but I have returned because I missed this country and its people, for I have never known better nor kinder. Please keep up your talks and your peace plan.


It would be worth talking to the devil himself if the result would be to save just one human life. Maybe if these weak-kneed wafflers had listened to you earlier those poor unfortunate victims of the recent atrocities (both sides) would be alive today.

Cardiff woman

I am a 75-year young pensioner and an elder in the Presbyterian church in Wales . . . It seems so simple to me that a Christian should try to do what is right. What is not simple is to do it in the knowledge that you may be putting yourself in physical danger. I don't think I could do that.

Man, Belfast

Your passion is inspiring and you are a tribute to how to channel anger into nonviolent assertive power. You have touched a deep chord in many people.

Woman teacher, Belfast

I have never been a supporter of the IRA or Sinn Fein, but you seem to be one of the few people to realise that they are an integral part of the equation and peace will never be achieved by simply ignoring them.

Couple, Trowbridge, Wiltshire

As Israel and South Africa demonstrate, it is only by such actions as yours that these deep-seated conflicts can begin to find resolution.

West Belfast

We are 15 families from west Belfast and we are writing to ask you not to give up on the peace talks with Gerry Adams. We have lost members of our families through British army violence and loyalist violence, no one has condemned this or gave us support in our bereavements only Sinn Fein.

We're nationalist people, we're Irish people, we love our culture, sport, history and mythology and we have a right to live in our home town, enjoying life with freedom and justice. Our hearts are broke. The nationalist people have suffered badly, we all want peace and we want you to know we support you 100 per cent. Don't give up on us, you've given us hope.

Woman, Co Down

You are the only one to give us hope in the face of so much duplicity, selfishness and prejudice.

Nun, Dublin

All the darkness in the world cannot put out the light of one small candle. You have lit a little candle and with the help of God many other candles will be set alight by its flickering flame.

Co Armagh woman

Please keep up your good work and speak for us who cannot speak for ourselves. You have good broad shoulders to take the flak and time will vindicate you.

Group of nuns, Florida

Your intentions are in our daily prayers. May Jesus fill you with his love and healing strength.

Catholic woman, west Belfast

I said to my husband, my God John Hume's in hospital. My handicapped daughter, who we think knows very little, turned around and gave a big gasp and shook her head, so we are all with you.

Catholic woman, Derry

I was four when the Troubles began and until now I was afraid even to imagine what it would be like to have peace. You have changed that.

Protestant couple, Coleraine

We feel strongly that the only glimmer of hope on the horizon lies in your continued dialogue with Gerry Adams, irrespective of the opposition. You have our full support in the difficult days ahead.

Bury St Edmunds

This has been a terrible time and from my quiet, peaceful backwater in Suffolk this is a letter of support. You have to keep trying.

Doctor and wife, Gloucestershire

We have no connections with the province but are daily saddened by the atrocities. Good luck, sir, in your pilgrimage. The prayers of millions must be with you.

Protestant woman, Co Down

Please continue your efforts. Twenty years ago my husband was very badly injured in an explosion in Belfast. At that time we did not think that 20 years on there would still be atrocities. But what other way is there but to talk?

(Photograph omitted)