Tributes to giant of peace process as Hume bows out

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The Independent Online

John Hume, one of the towering figures in the Northern Ireland peace process and Irish nationalism, yesterday announced he is to bow out of public life after more than three decades.

Mr Hume, formerly leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, said that on health grounds he will not run again in this year's European elections. He will also stand down from Westminster at the next general election.

His decision brought tributes from various parts of the political spectrum, admirers recalling an eventful political career which brought many honours, including the Nobel peace prize. Tony Blair spoke of his unique contribution to peace and justice, "holding steadfastly to the belief that a just and honourable solution could be found even when others were tempted to lose hope."

The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said that the Good Friday Agreement was testament to Mr Hume's "talents of leadership, pragmatism and negotiation." The former US Senator George Mitchell, who chaired peace talks, said: "His high place in Irish history is assured."

Mr Hume said he was stepping down with regret. He has not been well for some time, quitting as leader several years ago. Within Irish nationalism, and among admirers in the US and Europe, Mr Hume is regarded as a consistent opponent of violence. His career stretches back to the 1960s, as one of the leaders of the civil rights movement.

His most difficult period was in the early 1990s when his talks with Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams were originally highly controversial and reviled from many quarters.

Although there was much criticism that the contact could only encourage the IRA to persist in violence, these eventually led to the IRA ceasefires and to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which he said yesterday was his greatest achievement.

He is regarded as an architect of modern Irish nationalism, in its move away from the old simplicities of demanding Irish unity, and of the peace process. Mr Hume leaves behind a party in difficulty, since it was heavily defeated by Sinn Fein in last year's Assembly elections. The party is now struggling to re-fashion itself.

The next big contest within nationalism will come in the June European parliament elections. Mr Hume would have been favourite to retain one of Northern Ireland's three European seats, but his departure means Sinn Fein will challenge hard for one of the three.

Asked what he would miss most about Europe, where he had been an MEP since the 1970s, Mr Hume said: "Being there and working there. Europe is the best example in the history of the world of conflict resolution." Gerry Adams said it was to Mr Hume's credit that he worked with Sinn Fein: "He was vilified, of course, but the Hume-Adams dialogue, as it became known, opened up the possibility of a new beginning.

"That period of hope is often forgotten as the peace process stumbles from one crisis to another. But that hope should be a lasting tribute to the finest hour of John Hume."