Ceasefire: It's all just coming together for the fixer: John Hume risked all when he met Sinn Fein. Now there's talk of a Nobel Peace Prize. Cal McCrystal reports

Cal McCrystal
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:37

JOHN HUME'S great-grandfather was a Scottish Presbyterian, as sternly devout in his Protestantism as Ian Paisley and his Ulster Free Presbyterians are today. Like Paisley, Hume reveres the Scottish connection.

Sam Hume, a Berwickshire stonemason, emigrated to Donegal in the mid-19th century, married a Roman Catholic and raised his children in his wife's faith. The Paisley line, on the other hand, never yielded to 'Popery' and clung to the Scottish connection as a lifeline to Britishness.

Hume and Paisley offer an interesting contrast. Both are bulky and beetle-browed, hectoring in public and mildly spoken - though invariably dogged - in private. They can be witty: 'When Paisley starts to speak (in the European Parliament, of which both are members), I immediately switch over to the headphones to the nice French girl translating him.' Paisley enjoys this sort of banter. But whereas Paisley would never jest about his origins, Hume does it frequently.

Lord (Alec Douglas) Home, another Berwick man whose surname is pronounced 'Hume', once said to the SDLP leader: 'I always wondered if we were related.' Hume grinned. 'Not a chance,' he said. 'Your lot were always non-U'

Where they differ most of all is in the style of their respective missions. The Democratic Unionist leader has been a banner-and-drum man all his life. Hume is an assiduous, often secretive networker with important political friends throughout Europe and America.

His 30-year journey from small-town obscurity to international eminence has exhausted him - and damaged his health, perhaps irreparably. His attempts to draw Gerry Adams to the peace table were until recently as widely criticised - 'talking to terrorists' - as they are now loudly praised, though no one could convincingly dismiss Hume's abhorrence of terrorism. Since he is on a loyalist paramilitary death list, he does not know what his personal future holds.

Hume was born in what he calls Derry and his Protestant neighbours called Londonderry in 1937. When I saw him earlier this year in his native city, he showed me his grandparents' tiny, terrace house in Lower Nassau Street, on the city's northern outskirts. 'My father and mother had one room in that house, and that's where I was born, the first of seven children,' he said with what seemed to be pride. His father, Sam, was a former soldier, clerk and shipyard riveter. His mother, 14 years younger, was Annie Doherty, whose family came from Fahan on Lough Swilly in Donegal, out of which, in 1607, Ireland's leading chieftains sailed into European exile (the so-called Flight of the Earls).

By the time John Hume was four, the growing family had settled in another small, rented house (toilet in the yard) in a steep, cobbled street with a view of the Donegal hills across the border. In June 1945, the last of the Hume children was born into this overcrowded accommodation; Sam and the four boys sharing one room, Annie and the three girls in the other.

Among Hume's memories of that time is his father emphasising the futility of extreme nationalism. 'You can't eat a flag,' he told his sons. Recalling this maxim, Hume reminded me: 'The SDLP are the only party in Northern Ireland that doesn't use a flag. We have adopted the European socialist emblem - the rose.'

At primary school, Hume was an altar boy and did a newspaper round to boost the family income. He was clever - and pushy. At St Columb's College, a Catholic grammar school (one of the few Catholic institutions in a city dominated by a Protestant minority), he excelled at French and football, then trained for the priesthood. 'In those days,' he told me, 'it was almost expected that the eldest son would go into the priesthood.' Three years later, however, he dropped out of Maynooth seminary and, having taken a degree in French and history, took up teaching.

It wasn't enough. Hume began to emulate his father. 'He was the local scribe, writing letters to officialdom for neighbours who couldn't compose their own.' Hume began to organise quizzes in pubs in the Bogside and other poor neigh bourhoods where unemployment was 30 per cent, to 'lift the unemployed out of their apathy' according to a former school friend.

In 1960, after a three-year courtship, Hume married Pat Hone, the daughter of a handyman from the Waterside area. A former teacher who now organises his office and appointments, she is deeply concerned about his workload's effect on his health. 'Isn't she a wonderful woman]' he said. They have three daughters and two sons, all university graduates.

Had Hume opted for a business career, it is likely that he would have been successful. In their teaching days, he and his wife found time to run a small smoked salmon business. He helped set up a housing association and a credit union - a community banking system to encourage saving and money management - in London derry. The housing association now has 16,000 members and pounds 17m in funds. Since then, his skill in helping to attract European and American industries to the city has enhanced his reputation for business acumen.

But politics prove more attractive. In 1968, as a leader of Derry Citizens' Action Committee, he was in the vanguard of Catholic demonstrations for a fairer deal from the Unionist government at Stormont. Self- help, civil rights and constitutional nationalism were what he preached. 'A united Ireland, if violence is rightly to be discounted, can only come about by agreement. It is the people of Ireland who are divided, not the territory.'

He spent a year at Stormont as an Independent MP, and then in 1969 helped form the SDLP - largely Catholic, but with a significant Protestant minority - and steered the party through the Troubles towards 'the European democratic socialist tradition'. In doing so, he has attracted severe criticism as well as plaudits. The New Statesman & Society recently noted his 'wordiness and thin-skinned egotism' (though acknowledging him as 'a formidable negotiator-fixer'). His dealings with Gerry Adams prompted Conor Cruise O'Brien to say that 'in supping with the Devil, he is using too short a spoon'. The Unionists see him, at worst, as Adams' 'accomplice'; at best, as Adams' 'dupe'.

He is sensitive to criticism, though this may be due to the fact that, in Northern Ireland, even a mild distortion of a politician's words can be fatal. IRA supporters have destroyed two of his cars. Five hooded men tried to firebomb his home in 1987. Now, the same people might be moved to shake his hand. Whatever the motives one puts on his dialogue with Adams, it pushed the British and Irish governments into a fresh search for an accommodation with militant republicanism. Last February, a ceremony in Londonderry's Guildhall honoured Hume's 25 years' service to the city as an MP, MEP and self-help missionary. The Protestant bishop described him as 'a true democrat' and 'the key to Derry's resurgence'. Today many in Ulster talk of a Nobel Peace Prize.

Last week, Hume was being hailed in some quarters as an alchemist. But the process he is widely credited (or blamed) for initiating is far from over. He knows that. Yet at every appropriate opportunity, he will rummage in his pocket for a small coin, a US cent, and run a fingernail under the Latin inscription - E pluribus unum (one from the many). 'That's what I'm trying to achieve.'

(Photograph omitted)

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