Bigger than any bomb

Some say his credibility is lost but the SDLP leader will fight on. profile: John Hume

Paul Routledge
Sunday 18 February 1996 00:02 GMT

WHEN the Docklands bomb went off, John Hume was at the residence of the American ambassador to the Irish Republic, Jean Kennedy Smith, who was holding a reception for artists in celebration of their freedom to paint a country at peace. He left the room to be told the dread tidings, and returned "a devastated, broken man", according to those present.

The SDLP leader certainly admits to being "shattered, just shattered" by the precipitate, bloody end to the IRA ceasefire, but broken he was not. Within days, he was hard at work picking up the pieces. In the Commons last Monday he proposed a referendum in Northern Ireland and the republic. All week, he fielded interviews from around the world. Yesterday, his post-bomb strategy was endorsed by his party's ruling general council meeting in Belfast. Then he was in contact with Sinn Fein leaders, seeking a fresh peace initiative, his position bolstered by opinion polls north and south of the border that support his call for immediate all-party talks. In the next few days, he will be talking directly to John Major.

Yet in nearly 30 years of working for peace, John Hume's credibility has never been more on the line. Six months ago, he was hailed as a peacemaker and a serious contender for the Nobel Peace Prize, but last weekend was the moment for his enemies. David Trimble, leader of the Official Unionists, said: "We must draw the necessary conclusions [from the outrage]. John Hume's proposition was and is false. There can no longer be any illusion about the nature of Sinn Fein/IRA. It is not about to become a democratic party ... John Hume cannot continue his relationship with Sinn Fein. Nor can he continue to echo the demands of Sinn Fein."

Hume refuses to change tack. He rejects Trimble's demands to marginalise Sinn Fein, on the grounds that it would only perpetuate the violence. "I will talk to all sides to restore the ceasefire," he insists. "Everyone must do everything in their power to achieve a lasting settlement. That means getting all parties to the negotiating table as soon as possible."

He talks of taking "the gun out of Irish politics for ever" - his gospel since his first, hesitant excursion into Northern Irish politics. He was there on the day the Troubles started, 5 October 1968, in his native city of Londonderry, when a Saturday afternoon civil rights march was bludgeoned into history by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Fewer than 500 protesters gathered to march into the heart of "the maiden city" but their autumnal walk had been banned by Stormont's hard-line home affairs minister William Craig. The RUC used batons and water-cannon in what amounted to a police riot.

Hume was profoundly moved by this experience, which unleashed not just the Provo horrors of the ensuing years but a more sophisticated Catholic response to the repression that they had suffered for generations. Londonderry, a city with a Catholic majority, was ruled by the Protestant Unionist minority through an elaborate system of gerrymandered council boundaries. This shameless political fix gave the Unionists control over jobs, housing and the local economy. Opposition came from the Nationalist Party, which most Catholics supported but which was firmly embedded in the politics of partition, and from a younger, more volatile group of local activists, chiefly republicans and members of the left-wing Derry Labour Party. They, and the fledgling Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, took the protest to the streets.

The trouble that followed prompted Hume to look for a non-violent engine of change. He was among those who called a citizens' meeting in the city's main hotel, which discreetly took the political initiative away from the "hotheads" into the hands of a Derry Citizens' Action Committee. This body, excoriated by the impatient revolutionary figure of Eamonn McCann as "middle-class, middle-aged and middle-of-the-road", channelled Catholic resentment into more moderate paths, and in the short run appeared to succeed. Northern Ireland's mildly reformist Prime Minister Terence O'Neill abolished the corrupt Londonderry corporation. On the back of this victory, Hume took on the Nationalist Party and McCann in the Stormont elections and won, entering Ulster's parliament in 1969.

McCann later conceded in War and an Irish Town that Hume struck an attitude that "perfectly matched the mood of the Catholic masses. John Hume was its personification: reasonable, respectable, righteous, solid, non-violent and determined."

HIS background was classic Derry boy. John Hume was born in January 1937 in Lower Nassau Street, in a tiny terrace house in what was then a religiously mixed area of north Londonderry. His father Sam, a shipyard riveter and wartime civil servant, was well into middle age when "wee John" arrived, the first of seven children. When the war was over, Sam Hume was made redundant and never worked again, a fate only too common among the Catholic working class. He was not active in politics, and cautioned his son against being taken in by the flag-waving enthusiasts for a united Ireland. "You cannot eat a flag," he counselled.

Post-war Northern Ireland was in something of a time-warp, but even here change was on the way. Hume was among the first of a new generation of 11-plus Catholic primary school pupils nurtured by Labour's education reforms, grudgingly and belatedly implemented by Stormont in 1948. He won a scholarship from Rosemount school to St Columb's, the church's grammar school where the discipline was tough and academic standards high. St Columb's was also a junior seminary, and Hume, an altar boy at the city's cathedral since he was eight, opted to become a priest. At the age of 17, he went to St Patrick's College, Maynooth, the highly successful but spartan seminary outside Dublin. He stayed three years, studying history and French, and then quit. He is reluctant to talk about his disillusion with the cloth.

Hume went back to his native Derry without a degree (he later took a good second-class honours) and found work as a teacher. As time went by, he was also drawn ineluctably into public life. He was a founder of the Derry Credit Union, a mutual savings and loan institution which now has thousands of members and millions of pounds in reserves. He helped set up the Derry Housing Action Committee, which seriously addressed the issue of Catholic homelessness for the first time. And while still a 28-year- old teacher, he chaired an all-party city pressure group demanding that Northern Ireland's second university should be based in Londonderry rather than Coleraine.

The campaign failed (though Londonderry has its university now), and its failure pushed Hume further into politics. He originally stood as an Independent, but worked closely with other Opposition MPs at Stormont from the start. The outcome of this collaboration was the Social Democratic and Labour Party, founded in August 1970 with Gerry Fitt as its leader and Hume as his deputy. It was a new beginning in Irish politics. The SDLP was left of centre, but not avowedly socialist, and it was pledged to work for "the eventual re-unification of Ireland through the consent of the majority of the people in the North and the South." That remains its aim. The SDLP joined the short-lived power-sharing executive of 1974, and Hume was in the Cabinet as Commerce Minister. It was the only time he held office in Northern Ireland.

By this stage, however, Northern Ireland was in the grip of IRA terror, and, deprived by the imposition of direct rule of a platform at Stormont, Hume looked abroad - particularly to America - to influence events. He was close to Senator Edward Kennedy, who helped him get a lectureship at Harvard University. Eventually, President Carter spoke in public of the need for "an Irish dimension" in solving the Ulster issue.

Hume worked his way back to the political centre-stage, becoming an MEP in 1979 and leader of his party later that year. He entered Westminster in 1983, as MP for Foyle, pointing out in his maiden speech that never before had a Catholic or a non-unionist represented Derry.

He is not much of a "Westminster man", and makes no secret of it. He is usually there for Northern Ireland questions, but rarely at other times. It was expected that he would stand down at the next general election, when he will be 60, but if the peace process has not run its course he may feel obliged to stay on, "sentenced to the treadmill", as an aide puts it.

His political style is pedagogic. Perhaps his greatest contribution to finding a solution to the Ulster problem has been his gift of a language (often described as "Humespeak") in which the parties can talk without losing face. His formula of "the right of the Irish people to self-determination" echoes through the Downing Street declaration. It was Hume who persuaded Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to declare that Britain "no longer has a selfish strategic or economic interest" and that it was "difficult to envisage" a military victory over the IRA. This gift, together with his tireless determination not to accept defeat or be put off by extremist obloquy, will earn him a place in Ireland's political pantheon.

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