Historians pay tribute: ‘Today we live in John Hume’s Ireland, and thank God for that’

‘His extraordinary impact reflects the exceptional political leader and person he was’

Brendan O'Leary
The numberless tributes have been heartening.

The right grace notes have been hit: John Hume’s lifelong commitment to non-violence; his tenacious pursuit of equality, including equal national dignity for Northern cultural Catholics; his unrivalled strategic eloquence in internationalizing the injustices of the North beyond these islands; and his recurrent bravery, never better illustrated than in opening the doors that enabled Sinn Féin and the IRA to walk toward peace.

Among the minor people who knew him our proudest moment must be sticking up for him amid the horrors of the Shankill, Greysteel and Loughinisland mass-killings of 1993-94. Hume knew what he was doing, and what he was doing was good – bringing an uncivil war to an end. He had no script; he improvised what was required, exploiting each moment as best he could. It is difficult to imagine who else could have done it, let alone done it better.

But before Hume sleeps with O’Connell, Parnell, and Martin Luther King, we should not forget the ingratitude. Loud voices in Dublin roared that he was being manipulated by terrorists, or that he was using the IRA to aid his own negotiating power. Some said worse. Had they crushed Hume’s spirit the bloody mess would have continued.


We should also not forget his intellectual toughness. He could negotiate, embarrass, and remonstrate with his sharp tongue and pen. He was void of blarney – even if he could sing schmaltz about Derry.

His review of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s States of Ireland in the Irish Times of October 9th, 1972 exhibits this diamond-hard intellectual side. Hume found it “difficult to find any central or clearly stated theme.” True, but ouch.

Then came the exhibition and shaming of the author’s vanity, followed by a political puncture: “There is no doubt that the family connections revealed in this book cover practically every aspect of the political spectrum in Ireland through the past century, with the significant exception of the Northern minority.”

John Hume was true to that Northern minority throughout his life, but his armoured intellect was essential to his remarkable public service. Yes, he had a big heart, but his brain supervised it. We should honour him by not sentimentalizing him.
Brendan O'Leary is the author of A Treatise on Northern Ireland.

Joanne Murphy
"There are many people who made the peace process possible, but only one without whom it would not have happened and that was Hume. He was the centre of the matrix." These words, spoken to me in a recent interview by an Irish diplomat characterise the essential nature of Hume's contribution.

I’m a Hume fan, but I readily admit to being shocked at the detail of his influence and importance – much of which is only now coming into the public domain. At the heart of that is his visionary articulation and reframing of the conflict – as a contestation ‘among people not territory’ and his early prescience of the three strands unlocking relationships in these islands, pulling in Europe and America and providing the only achievable pathway to peace.

It is clear from commentary that leaders like Hume are unusual: they are not perfect and certainly not easy. Many speak of how challenging he could be and how focused on his goal to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. But people like Hume move us forward into futures which mirror their vision. Today, we live in Hume's Ireland, and thank God for that.
Dr Joanne Murphy is Academic Director, William J Clinton Leadership Institute, Queen's University Management School. Her latest work is Management and War: How Organisations Navigate Conflict and Build Peace (Palgrave Macmillan)

Christopher Kissane
In February 1989, months before the fall of the Berlin Wall would reshape Europe, John Hume wrote an essay for the London Review of Books in which he reflected on the way history had imprisoned Northern Ireland. 'Our attitude to the future,' he wrote, 'is paralysed by our obsession with the past'.

Hume had by then spent decades campaigning for equality and peace against the sectarianism of the unionist state, the repression of the British security forces, and the merciless violence of extremist paramilitaries (‘if I were to lead a civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland today,’ he wrote, ‘the main target would be the IRA’).

He had been harassed, arrested, goaded, denounced, and threatened, but remained convinced that a non-violent resolution was possible. If ‘the vision to suggest new ways’ could rebuild and unite a devastated Europe after world war, then it could surely solve ‘our own local quarrel’.

Unionist negotiators would later be infuriated by Hume’s obsessive focus on vision whenever they raised problematic details. He was, Seamus Heaney wrote, the proverbial hedgehog, knowing one big thing and sticking to it. And that dogged determination to raise ‘the longed-for tidal wave of justice’ would eventually bring the greatest sea-change in generations.

Hume wrote that our over-indulgence in the past was 'a reflection of a much deeper weakness – our lack of the confidence to stand on our own feet, in our own time, with the ideas of our time, facing the problems of our time'. It is his legacy that we now can, and our responsibility to his memory that we now do.
Dr Christopher Kissane is an Editorial Fellow at History Workshop

Declan Kiberd
John Hume had a tremendous sense of irony, which every politician badly needs to survive the madness of public life. One night on a British television programme, he was lectured by a well-meaning but condescending chap from the Shires: "Why, oh why, can't you Irish forget?". "It's simple," was the reply:"it's because you English can never remember". The sad history kept on repeating itself because of these blindnesses.

But he was more than a wit – he was a pragmatic visionary who understood how interconnected are the histories of Ireland, England and the United States. He saw the need to confront the English with the implications of their policies for Ireland – had he been around in the lead-up to the Brexit debate, he might have had some effect in outlining its catastrophic potential for all that he and many other politicians had built.

In his day, by sheer persistence, he made English people realise that the Irish Question was also an English Question – that one of the reasons the English got so impatient about Northern Ireland was that it raised, in semi-disguised form, all kinds of echoes of their own unresolved national question. Where others from the time of Lloyd George to Mrs Thatcher had tried to “answer” the question, Hume was brilliant in seeking to define its underlying meaning.

His analysis was that both peoples needed to Europeanise and Americanise, to recognise that they were living along the lines of a single circle in an ever more concentric world. The European models of devolution in a “continent of regions” could release much of the bad steam that had accumulated in the North (and in other deprived parts of the UK); and the Americans could provide money, not for guns but for industrial development. Both Europeans and Americans, like the Irish and British governments, could act as honest brokers of a settlement. And by repeating his mantras like all good teachers, he taught everyone not just what to do but how to do it.

Mr Hume was always willing to admit the need to reconcile national and unionist traditions, so that neither should lose its pride – but, again, ever the shrewd psychologist, he realised that at the root of some people’s inability to live at peace with the “other” was a prior inability to live at peace with themselves – because the cruel pressures of living amid great hatred in such cramped space had not permitted them to know who exactly they were.

He was a practical internationalist and had a touch of Bernard Shaw – especially when saying he was "a well-balanced Irishman with a chip on each shoulder". Unlike Shaw, he went beyond analysis and turned his ideas into practice, becoming arguably the most effective political leader of the past two generations on these islands. Most political careers end in failure, but his didn't.
Declan Kiberd, University of Notre Dame

Cera Murtagh

It is hard to overstate John Hume’s contribution to peace in Northern Ireland. The core principles of the current settlement, as agreed in the Good Friday Agreement - primarily, power-sharing between nationalism and unionism, the involvement of the British and Irish governments in its governance and the need for the consent of the people for any change to its constitutional status - all derived from Hume’s thinking and work over many years.

Hume’s death is a reminder of the role individuals can play in the course of history, one that is often overlooked as outcomes appear inevitable in retrospect. The extraordinary impact of this individual reflects the exceptional political leader and person he was – not least in his incisive analysis of the Northern Ireland conflict and its solutions, in his dogged conviction that an equitable solution was possible and, perhaps most notably, in his absolute commitment to peace and social justice over and above power or self-aggrandizement.

As a scholar of post-conflict societies, what inspires me most in Hume's legacy is his steadfast belief that people in a society torn by conflict can find a means to live together justly and peacefully. His passing gives us an opportunity to reflect on the peace that was achieved in Northern Ireland – imperfect but critical – and how its core principles can be developed as we move forward through the current challenges.
Cera Murtagh, Assistant Professor of Irish Politics, Villanova University, Pennsylvania

Peter McLoughlin
The platform for Bill Clinton's celebrated role in the Northern Ireland peave process was created decades earlier, with the work that John Hume did to convert Irish America to constitutional nationalism. By educating figures like Ted Kennedy on the sectarian realities of the Troubles, and encouraging him to openly condemn the IRA, the flow of dollars and arms to republicans was greatly reduced. In addition, this changed British attitudes to Irish-America.

“[A] few words in public from Senator Kennedy on the evils of fund raising”, noted one London official, “carry far more weight with the Boston Irish . . . than any similar statement from British politicians.” Strangely, Oxbridge accents were deemed less trustworthy in South Boston. Previously the British considered Kennedy a nuisance, and did all they could to limit his influence on the White House. Now they saw a useful ally. This opened the door for Irish America to use its greatest influence – not to aid the IRA, but to subtly steer White House policy on Northern Ireland. President Carter’s unprecedented statement on the conflict in 1977, and Reagan’s gentle nudging of Thatcher towards the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, were both proof of this.

The influence became more obvious in the 1990s. The Anglophile State Department had warned previous presidents about upsetting its key Cold War ally. But with the Soviet collapse, Clinton could be less precious about the “Special Relationship” with London. When he gave Gerry Adams a US visa in 1994, John Major refused to take Clinton’s calls for a week. This was still costly to the US, which needed British support to manage post-Cold War conflicts like that raging in Bosnia.

But domestic as well geo-politics were at play. Kennedy, advised by Hume, had mobilised Congress in support of the Adams visa. Having denounced the IRA for two decades, when Kennedy told Clinton the time was now right to reach out to republicans, his advice was heeded. Adams was thus able to demonstrate to republican hardliners the value of shifting to politics, and an IRA ceasefire was the end result.

Kennedy was eventually honoured by the Queen for his contribution to peace in Northern Ireland. Whitehall knew it owed the Lion of the Senate. Many more owe Hume for firstly taming Irish America, and showing that powerful beast the path to peace.
Peter McLoughlin lectures in politics at Queen's University Belfast

Tom Lyne
John Hume was inspired by the European project before himself becoming a beacon of hope. His famous single transferable speech resonated around Europe, particularly where democracy was a new invention. Listening to the speech at an event to welcome the new 21st-century member states to the EU I asked the young Central European woman next to me why she was crying - "Because no one has ever talked to us like this before".

John was in his element in Brussels and Strasbourg because the system places a premium on the quality of your arguments, not on the size of your temporary majority. So the leader of a small party from a remote corner of Europe was treated as an equal by Prime Ministers, party leaders and Commission chiefs. No phone call went without a response, no request for a meeting rejected. A citizen of somewhere, Derry, proved to be a citizen of everywhere.

John built alliances across national and political divides from one end of Europe to the other. The effective working relationship on European issues with Jim Nicholson and Ian Paisley, while astonishing many non-Irish observers, was a precursor of what could happen once violence stopped and power-sharing started.

It was a long haul with awful personal costs but a new, if not perfect, Ireland began.
Tom Lyne was John Hume's European Parliament adviser, 1993-2004

Brian Feeney
What John Hume focussed on was gaining equality of status and parity of esteem for nationalists in the north as opposed to demanding an end to partition. Since 1921 Unionists had created a regime for unionists only which denied equal rights for all its citizens. Hume's strategy of demanding human rights and equality presented the British government with an unanswerable case for no government could object to such demands.

Hammering away at equality ultimately meant creating institutions that dismantled the unionist system. Hume said, “We should have institutions that respect the differences of people and give no victory to either side”, the polar opposite of what unionism had established in the north. His relentless demand for equality had to be reflected in agreed institutions. As Hume often pointed out, “Agreement threatens no one.” Unionists had no answer.

His insistence on the priority of human rights and equality for all led to the end of the unionist veto on any change and to the demise of the unionist state by peaceful means when unionists bought into sharing power - a remarkable achievement.
Brian Feeney is co-author of Lost Lives: the stories of the men, women and children killed in the Northern Ireland Troubles