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

National public airing of principle of unity by consent


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.

Fionnuala O Connor, then of The Irish Times , summed up the effect of the Hume-Gageby relationship in 2006: “It mattered that southern readers saw stories from Belfast on the front page of the most influential newspaper day after day, no matter how awful the content of stories. It is not too much to say that Gageby’s personal convictions became a check on the national consciousness, perhaps even a moral precept for a generation of politicians.”

However Gageby found there was a price to pay.

He was on a collision course with the paper’s owners and their inherited unionist sympathies. This was to have diplomatic significance and symbolised the gulf in policy approaches to Northern Ireland between London and Dublin during the 1960s. Gageby’s decision to grant Hume a platform appeared to run counter to the politics if not the ethos of The Irish Times itself and was among a series of articles and news reports between 1964 and 1969 which prompted Major Tom McDowell, a director and later chairman of the newspaper, to seek advice from a senior British diplomatic figure.

Their contacts prompted the so-called “white nigger” controversy – the term originating in McDowell’s reported description of his editor to Sir Andrew Gilchrist, British ambassador to Ireland. Gilchrist wrote to his superiors in London: “McDowell is one of the five [Protestant] owners of The Irish Times , and he and his associates are increasingly concerned about the line the paper is taking under its present (Protestant, Belfast-born) [sic] editor, Gageby, whom he described as a very fine journalist, an excellent man, but on the northern question a renegade or white nigger.”

The controversy became public in 2003 with the release of State papers. Despite McDowell’s concerns, he took no action against Gageby.

UCD historian Diarmaid Ferriter wrote in 2005 that Gageby recognised the apparent tiredness of his newspaper’s image and tapped into the mood for change, aiming coverage towards younger people and by employing talented women such as Mary Holland and Nell McCafferty, both of whom reported significantly on Northern Ireland and the civil rights movement.

Perhaps strangely, Hume’s articles prompted just two letters to the editor following publication. The second, and more significant letter, was signed by playwright Brian Friel who noted the newspaper’s increased coverage of the “confused political-religious situation in Northern Ireland”. Friel supported Hume’s assertion by claiming there could be no “real unity in Ireland until both sides come together voluntarily”.

O Connor, with the considerable advantage of more than 40 years’ hindsight, summed up the Hume effect of 1964.

“The platform the paper gave to Hume . . . was a stimulus to the efforts of Department of Foreign Affairs officials in Dublin tasked to work on a practical policy for successive governments to adopt in the face of the Troubles. Though it was scarcely surprising that it should have been so, it was Hume’s articulation of a moderate nationalist position, coherent and above all else non-violent, that became the guiding principle of southern policy.”