Saturday Profile: John Hume: Architect of a new nation

David McKittrick
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:49

JOHN HUME infuriates many academics because he is not just leader of a political party, but also a conceptualiser and thinker on a grand scale; he is not just a politician, but also the instigator of whole new theories of conflict resolution.

While this may greatly irritate those academics who believe that this sort of thing is best left to them, it has excited the support and admiration of Irish nationalists. Yesterday Hume received his electoral award for this from voters, who clearly regard him as the architect of the peace process.

The idea of an inclusive process, with room in it for the extremes of both republicanism and loyalism, has come to be taken so much for granted that it is instructive to recall just how controversial a concept it was just a few years ago.

As the election results vividly illustrate, that notion has yet to take firm root within Unionism, a movement that shows all the signs of being badly split and confused about the new Northern Ireland mapped out in the Good Friday agreement.

But the results also showed that nationalists are practically unanimous in embracing the new philosophy, many voting SDLP as a gesture of gratitude for John Hume's initiative in finding what many had feared did not exist: a potential exit route from the troubles.

The great divide within Irish nationalism has always been between those who, like the IRA, believed that violence was the best way of achieving their aims, and those like Hume who argued for using political means alone.

The early part of his career, first as a civil rights activist on the streets and later as a politician, was about building power and influence for northern nationalism. This had traditionally been a community characterised by dolefully impotent isolation. His career has taken him from Londonderry's streets to the most rarified corridors of power.

Born in Londonderry in 1937, he was in the first year to benefit from the 11-plus system, which made free grammar school places available to all. His grandfather was Scots Presbyterian; his father, John, a riveter in the Bogside, endured the city's traditionally high unemployment for much of his life. Hume's early years were spent in poverty, but education led first to a career in teaching and then to the running of a sizeable credit union.

Hume built up his influence by becoming a figure of note not just in Belfast but also in Dublin, London, Brussels and Washington. An odd situation developed in the Irish Republic in particular, where staunch supporters of southern parties looked for guidance on the north not to their own leaders, but to Hume. As a result there is a fair amount of resentment against him among the political elite in Dublin, who find it hard to accept a figure outside the state wielding so much influence within it.

In addition to the south, the American card lent a whole new dimension to northern nationalism, building up as it has to the point where Bill Clinton takes a strong personal interest in the peace process.

Gerry Adams may command greater popular attention, but Hume has automatic access to the most powerful Washington decision-makers.

This process of empowerment of northern nationalism led to the Anglo- Irish agreement of 1985, when London and Dublin laid aside many of their differences and agreed to regard Northern Ireland as a common concern best managed jointly. Again, Hume was regarded as being among the accord's architects.

When later he came up with the idea of the peace process, however, it was seen as very much a solo run. In one sense, the concept evolved out of the Anglo-Irish agreement, since this had recognised Irish nationalism as a legitimate identity, the accord standing in itself as a sign of what political lobbying could achieve.

It showed Sinn Fein and the IRA that northern nationalism could make progress without killing people, but it very definitely did not invite them to participate in the political field. That came next, beginning in 1988, when Hume made a serious pitch to the republicans and opened talks with Adams.

The republican worry had been that simply calling off their campaign of terrorism would leave their supporters without influence, a friendless and apparently vanquished community that would be prey to ostracism and discrimination by an unreconstructed Unionism. Hume argued that abandoning violence would lead to more, not less, political clout.

All this can now be made to sound all very straightforward and logical. It is easy to forget just how much controversy those original Hume-Adams contacts were. They represented a spectacular violation of the general protocol that constitutional representatives should not speak to those associated with violence.

When word of the contacts leaked out, there was a furious firestorm of condemnation.

This was maintained as the contacts continued, since as the talks were going on IRA bombings and shootings continued. At many points the pressure on Hume to give up was intense, as many found it impossible to reconcile the idea of a peace process with the fact that the killing had not stopped. Privately and publicly, many clamoured for him to desist.

His lowest moment probably came in late 1993 when an IRA bomb exploded prematurely in a Shankill Road shop, killing not only the bomber but also nine Protestant men, women and children. The peace process seemed to be in ruins.

Hume was lambasted by various senior southern Irish politicians for "using Provo-speak" and for making common cause with paramilitaries. A senior Unionist leader said he had "sold his soul to the devil."

A Dublin newspaper 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."

One columnist declared: "John Hume has been evasive and illogical. He is increasingly irrational. He is clearly intent on sucking us into an immoral relationship with active terrorists. Mr Hume and Mr Adams have nothing to offer."

One of the most poignant moments came when Hume attended the funeral of one of the victims of loyalist retaliation for the Shankill Road bombing.

He was approached by the daughter of one 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 Hume nodded, held her hands, then turned away and broke down in tears.

The pressure took such a toll on him that he collapsed and had to be taken to hospital. There he received 1,169 letters, notes and get-well cards and other cards, most of them urging him to persevere. When IRA and loyalist ceasefires eventually came about, followed by the potentially historic compromise of the Good Friday agreement, most if not all the critics said that Hume had been vindicated.

Of continuing concern within the SDLP, however, was the worry that Hume might have sacrificed the interests of the party to the extent that Sinn Fein could overhaul it to become the largest nationalist grouping in Northern Ireland. Many party members were worried sick that the republicans might take over.

Sinn Fein has certainly prospered electorally, with its share of the vote rising from 11 per cent to 17 per cent in the last decade. The fear in SDLP ranks was that republicans, having failed to win their war, might instead manage to win the peace. Yesterday's result shows, however, that after all the risk-taking the SDLP has not only held but also consolidated its position as the main nationalist voice.

But yesterday's success brings, as ever, fresh challenges. The talk in recent times has been of impending change in Northern Ireland, and how best it may be managed and fashioned constructively. Nationalists are enthusiastic for change, while Unionists tend to worry about it, and even the most moderate Unionists will find it hard to come to terms with such a large SDLP vote.

Hume is already a Westminster MP and a Euro-MP, as well as his party's principal link to Washington and Irish-America. It remains to be seen how deeply he will wish to become involved in a new assembly which, with a strong Paisley presence, cannot be expected to run smoothly. His wife, Pat, who for decades has worked in his political office, wants him to slow down; but political pressures might keep him in the front line of politics.

Whatever his choice, the history books will say he helped to transform a northern nationalism that was friendless, fatalistic and apathetic, into a vibrant political force. In the process he has made himself into the most powerful Irish political figure in the world.

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