Quiet hero of the Irish peace

The Independent Personality of the Year: JOHN HUME

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John Hume is the Independent's personality of the year because of his foresight, his political and personal courage, his resilience and persistence; and above all because of his vision. There were times during the year when he seemed to be running on faith alone, when his judgement was almost universally doubted, and when he faced savage criticism in both Britain and Ireland. The vision that sustained him has produced new vision and hope for Northern Ireland. It has not resolved the Irish questio n: that will await a political settlement, taking years, not months. But it has halted the republican and loyalist campaigns of killing, and is helping to create the conditions in which a historic settlement can be thrashed out.

Mr Hume did not do this alone. Many other people and elements played parts large and small. The force of Irish public opinion was vital. Credit will go, too, to Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, if the cessation of IRA violence proves permanent. But Mr Hume was the first public figure to realise that a real opportunity for peace existed, and the first to act on it, staking all on his judgement.

Acting on it meant putting at risk his party, his reputation, his health and even his life. Some of the loyalists now taking their first faltering steps into the political processes were, not so very long ago, organising firebomb attacks on the homes of SDLP representatives. Mr Hume was warned during the year that loyalists were scouting his home. Since the loyalist and republican ceasefires of this autumn, he has been so much praised, and so showered with honours from Europe and the United States, thatit is easy to forget how controversial was the process he helped to set in train.

The idea of talks with terrorists, or with those associated with them, was one of the most delicate and dangerous issues in Irish politics. British governments have been in contact with the IRA over the decades, but generally in secret. Various Unionist politicians have been in touch with loyalist terrorists, not always to ask them to stop their killing. Mr Hume is a seasoned operator in such murky waters, having been in touch with the IRA as far back as 1972.

Some argue that the long series of meetings he held with Mr Adams in 1988, in which they debated in detail key nationalist concepts such as self-determination, planted the seeds in republican minds that grew into the present cessation.

However the very idea of such contacts has always been controversial and regarded by many as a violation of a general protocol that constitutional representatives should not speak to those associated with violence. Then when Mr Hume announced that he andMr Adams had reached a measure of accord - the so-called Hume-Adams agreement - the torrent of condemnation increased.

Those who genuinely feared that this approach would lend credibility to the republicans at a cost to democracy were joined by others who had previously felt inhibited by Mr Hume's standing from criticising him. Ronan Fanning, a history professor in Dublin, colourfully described what happened: "When the long-rumbling volcano of antagonism towards Mr Hume finally erupted in all its fury, the vomited debris revealed all the essential elements of anti-Parnellism."

Mr Hume was lambasted by various senior southern Irish politicians for "using Provo-speak"; for making common cause with paramilitaries; for playing political footsie with terrorists. A senior Unionist leader said he had "sold his soul to the devil". Another accused Mr Hume of endorsing the republican "Armalite and ballot-box strategy", deriding him for "that mixture of pleading and pathos which he exudes as the background for his dreary and platitudinous monologues".

One British newspaper said he had lost all judgement and told him the time had come to retire. The Dublin Sunday Independent, portraying him in a cartoon with blood on his hands, carried nine articles in one issue criticising him. The Irish Times noted: "Mr Hume is on the highest of high wires, with no safety net and with a great many enemies who would only too happily see him plunge to his political doom." John Major told Mr Hume in the Commons that the idea of talking to Mr Adams "would turn my stomach". It emerged only later that Mr Major had over a long period been talking to Mr Adams through intermediaries.

At the time both the British and the Irish governments were seen as discouraging Mr Hume's initiative, but he had some powerful cards to play. One was his conviction that, even as the killings continued, a cessation of the republican and loyalist campaigns remained a real possibility. Another was his own reputation as a man of peace.

At the height of the barracking and criticism Douglas Gageby, a former editor of the Irish Times, wrote in a letter to his old paper: "Many years ago my wife Dorothy and I were observing the progress of a large civil rights crowd across Craigavon bridge in Derry. On the west side we were stopped by the RUC. A young man in a check jacket turned round and motioned us all to sit down. He went forward to speak to the police. I was told his name was John Hume. He was unperturbed, cool and steady.

"I will never get that picture out of my mind. The demonstrators on the bridge, the wall of police and the young man crossing the open space on his own."

Such faith in Mr Hume, allied to the feeling that talking was essential, welled up from the grass roots. Within a few weeks he received more than 1,000 letters of support.

The Independent asked to see Mr Hume's postbag and published a full page of extracts. A sample from a Catholic woman in north Belfast: "After the recent massacres we were in total 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." A Dublin priest wrote: "Well done, hang in there, don't let Dublin or London discourage you, it's the first time in 70 years that the sewer has been unblo cked. God bless." A woman in Galway wrote: "The plain people north and south are with you. You are having a rough time just now but please hang on in there. It is hard to see that at the moment, but we are sure peace will come." A Catholic woman in Belfa st told him: "The hope which you have implanted in our minds of `the cessation of all violence' has caught like wildfire. It is on everyone's lips and has even invaded the minds of those who would oppose you." A Belfast man wrote: "Your passion is inspir ing and you are a tribute to how to channel anger into nonviolent assertive power. You have touched a deep chord in many people."

One of the most poignant moments came when Mr Hume attended the funeral of a man who had been shot dead by loyalists. He was approached by the daughter of the victim, who told him: "Mr Hume, we've just buried my father. My family wants you to know that when we said the rosary around my daddy's coffin we prayed for you, for what you're trying to do to bring peace."

The television cameras captured the scene as Mr Hume nodded, shook her hands, turned away and broke down in tears.

The strain on him was intense. Chain-smoking, pale and nervous and clearly not sleeping properly, he collapsed with exhaustion and spent some time in hospital - but his initiative had taken root. The Dublin government, under a deluge of protest, overnig h t reversed its sceptical position on the initiative and began to pursue it with vigour. London moved, too, and the result was last December's Downing Street declaration, an open invitation to terrorists to lay down their arms and join the political proce sses. This autumn the republicans declared a ceasefire, and were followed by the loyalists.

For some time to come there will be the fear that their campaigns will be resumed; but alongside that fear there is now real and growing hope that we have seen the beginning of the end of the troubles.

Mr Hume has much more work ahead if he is to help to build a new settlement and a new arrangement to which nationalists, republicans, Unionists and loyalists can all give allegiance. But by taking enormous risks for peace, and constructing a framework that helped to produce this year's momentous developments, he has already earned himself a place in history.

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