FIRST the African National Congress, then the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Will the IRA be the next to lay down its arms and come in from the cold? Is Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA - or some yet more shadowy figure, avowedly from the IRA Army Council - about to follow in the hallowed footsteps of Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat?
If so, it is John Hume, the chain- smoking MP for the Foyle division of Londonderry (Derry to the republicans), who will deserve much of the credit. The man who for a quarter of a century defied the bombers and the gunmen has spent the past six months in periodic and secretive conclave with Mr Adams. Last weekend they announced that they had come close to agreeing on an agenda that would offer 'a solid base for peace'. Ministers in London, Dublin and Washington have their reservations, but they are cautious about expressing them.
Mr Hume, scourge of the terrorists and elder statesman of peaceful, constitutional nationalism, is not an easy target. He is one of the few politicians with the moral stature necessary to reach out to Mr Adams, long treated as a pariah by the Northern Ireland Office and the Dublin government.
Even so, some constitutional nationalists privately expressed doubts about the MP's judgement, his arrogant-seeming determination to go it alone, and the wisdom of his initiative. None, however, queries his personal courage, hatred of terrorism, commitment to non-violence or lifelong dedication to reconciliation between nationalists and Unionists.
The leader and co-founder of the SDLP comes from good Derry stock, although his great-grandfather was a Scottish Presbyterian. For most of his life he has chosen to live in an aggressively republican part of the city he represents at Westminster - in spite of repeated threats on his life. He and his wife Pat, also from Derry, who acts as his secretary, have raised five children there (they have all elected to work or study outside the province).
Mr Hume was born and raised amid discrimination and poverty. His father, a riveter and clerk, was unemployed for almost two decades. John, his parents and his six younger siblings shared two bedrooms in a terraced house in the north of the city. From the start, however, he was upwardly mobile - and was helped on his way by the British government. He was one of the first working-class Catholic children to benefit from the introduction of the 11-plus examination - he passed it in 1950 and proceeded to the local St Columb's grammar school.
He trained for the priesthood for several years at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, before deciding that he lacked a vocation. So he returned home in the mid-Sixties and became a teacher of French. He was involved in self-help projects, including the Credit Union, a form of co-operative bank, and his was a natural progression to the civil rights movement in 1968, Stormont in 1969 and the formation of the SDLP in 1970. He was minister of commerce in the ill-starred power- sharing executive of 1974, and became an MEP five years later.
Throughout these years he never compromised with the men of violence. As a result, his cars were burnt on several occasions, and attempts were made to petrol-bomb his house by Provos who saw him as a traitor. Now he fears attempts on his life by loyalist paramilitaries, who have been targeting SDLP supporters.
This week Mr Hume has been keeping up his cracking pace as he jets across America, accompanied by a dozen Derry businessmen. The trip, planned well in advance, has the virtuous objective of selling the historic city to American investors.
The MP for Foyle, one of the two constituencies into which Derry is divided, is as serious as his travelling companions about drumming up investment to generate jobs. 'You have to admire the skill with which he log- rolls for his city, from Washington to Brussels,' says a Unionist politician. Mr Hume is particularly proud that he persuaded an American computer company to set up a plant on the fringe of Derry.
The United States boasts some 50 million citizens of Irish origins, and Mr Hume recognised the potential importance of this connection soon after he entered politics. His aims were to use Washington to extract concessions from London, and to persuade the Irish-American political class to staunch the flow of dollars to the IRA. He has worked the States ruthlessly ever since, just as he works Europe.
The visible manifestations of his American connection are to be found in his substantial weekend retreat in Donegal, just across the Irish border from Derry. A bronze bust of Teddy Kennedy has pride of place in his living room, and the walls are festooned with honorary degrees, peace certificates and the like from American colleges and institutes.
His contacts and standing in the US are quite simply unequalled - and Mr Hume does love being lionised. 'To see John at a Democratic convention is quite something,' according to Lord Holme, former president of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrat spokesman on Northern Ireland. 'He is feted on all sides and can hardly move for his retinue of senators and congressmen.'
The importance of such access at this crucial time cannot be exaggerated. But there is considerable irritation back home that Mr Hume has been more forthcoming to American politicians and the Boston Globe than opinion-formers in the Republic or the North.
For example, on Tuesday this week Teddy Kennedy found time to be briefed in Boston by his old drinking buddy, and subsequently endorsed the Hume-Adams initiative. And next week in Washington Mr Hume is expected to pull on board members of President Clinton's staff, and a number of personal friends among the so- called Murphia (Irish mafia) on Capitol Hill. His message is: 'Trust me - and twist whatever arms are necessary in Dublin and Whitehall to ensure that my proposals are taken seriously by John Major and Albert Reynolds, the Irish Prime Minister.'
It is difficult for some of his old friends and admirers in America, and elsewhere, to grasp quite what Mr Hume is up to. After all, for the past two decades he has made it his business to woo Irish-Americans away from their residual, romantic support for 'the boys' in the IRA and Sinn Fein, and so reduce the flow of funds used to buy Armalites and Semtex. According to one former Washington correspondent, however, 'John's standing is so high there that he had no need to go into detail about his talks with Sinn Fein. When he asks for support, he gets it'.
On his return, with American support safely sewn up, Mr Hume plans to make a more detailed report to the Irish government - which, like its British counterpart, refuses to have any formal contact with Sinn Fein. 'There is a degree of scepticism in Dublin, just as there is in London and Washington,' says an Irish diplomat. 'But you have to remember the standing John has in the Republic. If he came along announcing that he had just discovered that the world was flat, the Taoiseach would have to receive him respectfully to discuss the revelation. And all the more so if he was able to say that Teddy had become a flat- earther too.'
So Mr Hume can play on the international stage. But whom, back home, does he represent? The crude answer is: an absolute majority of voters in his constituency, Foyle, and an overwhelming majority of Nationalists. He collected 51.5 per cent of votes cast at the general election; Martin McGuiness, a leading member of Sinn Fein, won 17.6 per cent, with Gregory Campbell, a Democratic Unionist, gaining 26.4 per cent. The three men have been contesting the seat since the election of 1983, and their percentages have hardly changed.
The more sophisticated answer is: for all his hard-drinking, hustling style, he has come to represent the views and values of the burgeoning Catholic middle class, which has benefited from the erosion of discrimination and the flood of aid and investment to the province.
Such people remain steadfastly nationalist but, like Mr Hume, they are ready to accept the reality of the Unionist tradition. They are war- weary and fearful of brutality, corruption and disorder. 'They want unification, and peace and continued prosperity - and they want to get on with their Protestant neighbours,' according to one observer.
Mr Hume's ability to deliver is more problematic. The IRA has given no sign of good will, and continues relentlessly to plant its bombs.
The terrorist heartland remains the inner-city ghettos, and Mr Hume has always been the favourite hate figure in such areas. By offering enough to make itself look superficially reasonable in middle-class Catholic eyes - but not quite enough to attract London or the Unionists to the conference table - the IRA would do itself nothing but good, and at the same time discredit Mr Hume.
Unionist politicians are openly contemptuous of his initiative, which they present as an attempt to create a nationalist front linking the SDLP, through Sinn Fein, with the IRA. The outlawed Ulster Freedom Fighters have accused Mr Hume of 'supping with the Devil while the Devil's disciples carry on their sectarian genocide', and has made it clear that attacks on SDLP supporters will continue until the Hume-Adams talks are abandoned.
There is, then, not the slightest sign of the 'permanent cessation of hostilities' that London and Dublin agree is the essential condition for contact with Sinn Fein, far less the IRA.
Mr Hume has appealed publicly for people of good will to 'suspend judgement until the process is complete'. Many will, for a while, give him the benefit of the doubt. But, if his initiative eventually comes to nothing, the judgement on him is likely to be harsh.
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