Hume’s 1964 ‘Irish Times’ articles helped redefine nationalist attitudes to North

National public airing of principle of unity by consent

Mon, Apr 28, 2014, 01:01

Fifty years ago, The Irish Times published a strong challenge to the nationalist consensus on partition which laid foundations for a new approach to Northern Ireland. The author was John Hume, then a 27-year-old history teacher from Derry, who was also centrally involved in the credit union movement and other community action programmes.

The pieces were commissioned by editor Douglas Gageby, appointed the year before, on the enthusiastic advice of feature writer Michael Viney.

Viney had been sent to Northern Ireland by Gageby to file a series of reports entitled Journey North as he felt there were stirrings of change. Viney had met Hume in Derry and was so impressed by him and what he took to be his new thinking that he urged Gageby to provide him with a platform in The Irish Times .

Northern Ireland depressed Viney, who found its people downtrodden “but not by force of arms or imperialist domination”: “They are oppressed by armchair, atrophied attitudes to life and politics which they themselves are tricked into sustaining: on the one hand by a Unionist Party whose public attachment to power and privilege is often mediaeval in its cynicism; on the other by a corps of nationalists who, with a few exceptions, encourage slogans as a substitute for thought.”

Hume appeared fresh and different and used his opportunity to write a withering critique of the Nationalist Party and of Sinn Féin and to set out a radical – if not entirely new – approach. He argued for an acceptance of the northern status quo by Catholics with a view to changing it, an acceptance of the legitimacy of unionism, and a recognition that Catholic non-participation in public life linked to unionist discrimination jointly fostered injustice. Crucially he redefined what a united Ireland was and how it ought to come about. Unity could not be genuine unless the people of Ireland, including the unionists, were in consent.

This was a tearing-up of the 40-year nationalist consensus on partition and it was a national public airing of the principle of consent, the basis of the Belfast Agreement 34 years later. Hume’s was a significant voice, but not the only one.

The “consent principle” had been aired by National Unity in 1959, which was not so much an alternative political organisation to the Nationalist Party as a think tank of sorts. Similarly, debate was alive at Queen’s University Belfast where ideas were aired by the likes of Austin Currie, Michael Farrell, John Duffy, Ciaran McKeown and Vincent Hanna.

Civil rights
Con and Patricia McCluskey and Fr Denis Faul were already agitating for civil rights, rather than an end to partition, in Co Tyrone and even the Nationalist Party had backed so-called “Green-Orange” talks with unionists.

Publication of Hume’s article helped to set Gageby and The Irish Times on a course of reporting that highlighted the social and political conditions which were to prompt the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association campaign four years later.

It also laid the foundations of a mutually influential relationship between Hume and Gageby’s Irish Times which was to stand to the former in his political career and, consequently, to influence Irish government policy.