Hume, man who helped bring peace to Ulster, steps down

Ill-health and workload force SDLP leader to give up Assembly seat, prompting fears that his career may be nearing end
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John Hume, the SDLP leader, announced yesterday that he is to stand down from the Belfast Assembly, sparking speculation that the career of one of Irish nationalism's greatest heroes may have entered its final phases.

John Hume, the SDLP leader, announced yesterday that he is to stand down from the Belfast Assembly, sparking speculation that the career of one of Irish nationalism's greatest heroes may have entered its final phases.

Mr Hume, who has been one of the dominant political figures of the Troubles, said that he would shortly step down from the Assembly for reasons of overwork and health. "I have been heavily overloaded with work in recent times, and I have had health problems and had to take serious consideration of that." A year ago he collapsed with a perforated intestine during a visit to Austria, later having three operations. He has not been fully fit since.

Leadership of the SDLP at the Stormont Assembly has since been divided between Mr Hume and his party's deputy leader, Seamus Mallon, who serves as Deputy First Minister to David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader. Mr Hume has continued as overall leader of his party.

He has, however, never appeared fully at home in the Assembly, partly because he famously has no great love for the city of Belfast. Certainly, his demeanour at Stormont has conveyed that he regards his attendance there as more of a duty than a pleasure.

A Stormont political journalist said: "John is obviously bored at Stormont. He wanders round as though he's fed up and just wishes he were somewhere else. His heart isn't in it. You just know he'd rather be in Derry or Dublin or Washington."

It is also generally reckoned that his area of expertise has been the grand sweep of policy rather than the more mundane administrative matters that are to the fore in the Assembly.

He is credited as one of the originators of the idea that the Northern Ireland problem should be tackled on an Anglo-Irish basis, and as, possibly, the principal architect of the peace process.

Although Mr Hume is stepping down from one post he is to retain an array of others. As well as being party leader, he is an MP and member of the European Parliament. In addition, he is the SDLP's chief contact with the US administration, wielding enormous influence at the White House and with the powerful Irish-American lobby.

The question in most political minds is whether Mr Hume will feel well enough to maintain all these roles or whether ill-health may bring him to step down from some of them. Within constitutional nationalism and the wider community abroad, his reputation could hardly be higher. He is the most internationally acclaimed Irish politician of his generation, and has a huge collection of awards, culminating in the 1998 Nobel peace prize.

Opinion polls in both parts of Ireland consistently place him well ahead of any other nationalist politician in the public regard. This was particularly illustrated at the end of last year when those polled by a Dublin newspaper overwhelmingly voted him Person of the Millennium.

Several years ago he was asked to stand for the presidency of the Republic, a post that was, in effect, his for the asking. He hesitated for some time before turning down the job, concluding with an apparent tinge of regret that the peace process was not, at that point, secure enough for him to retire from active politics.

The question now is whether he believes that the peace process has become firmly enough established, with the new Assembly and executive in place and looking likely to be permanent fixtures.

The progress made under the peace process, and Mr Hume's stature as one of its principal architects, is so great that it is easy to forget how controversial the enterprise was in the early 1990s.

Many who are now enthusiastic supporters of the process were originally highly critical of Mr Hume, calling on him to abandon it.

The Irish Times reflected this a few years ago when it noted: "Mr Hume is on the highest of high wires, with no safety net and with a great many enemies who would be only too happily see him plunge to his political doom."

A frequently asked question is whether the SDLP has the strength in depth to retain its position as the biggest northern nationalist party, or whether Sinn Fein might overtake it in the years ahead.

A leaked internal SDLP document recently observed that the party needed a younger image and, in particular, needed to attract more promising newcomers to strengthen its middle and junior ranks. Sinn Fein is generally regarded as a younger party with a slew of dedicated activists. Its support has risen spectacularly over the past decade, though the SDLP vote has held up and Mr Hume last year received his highest personal vote yet in a Northern Ireland-wide European poll.