John Hume: ‘He was our own Martin Luther King’

What John Hume meant to me: Irish writers, from Michael Longley to Lisa McGee, pay tribute

John Hume in Derry in 1999. Photograph:  Bryan O’Brien

John Hume in Derry in 1999. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien


Séamas O’Reilly

The influence one person can have on a place is often overstated, but it is nearly impossible to overstate the effect John Hume had on Derry, and Northern Ireland, over decades and decades of service – much of it difficult, exhausting and thankless. So much has been written, and so beautifully, about the scope of his achievements, that I have little to say about them which hasn’t been said before, and better, elsewhere. Instead, I think of commonplace things.

My dad isn’t sure when I first would have met John Hume, but he reckons it would have been one of the many times they met and I happened to be with him, happy to extend my hand to this avuncular man with the messy hair, who was held by my father – a man he barely knew – in such high esteem. Growing up in Derry, this esteem for John was ubiquitous, but so too was he. He was something like a celestial object, in that he was high and exalted, but as ordinary as the nightly stars. He was the crumple-suited titan you saw on the TV shaking hands with the leaders of the free world, and then a month later pinning a medal on your jumper at the Derry feis.

My awareness of his works only really came with the slowly dawning knowledge that my secondary schooling and adulthood – in fact the majority of my life (thus far) – was being lived in peace time; something unknown in living memory, and of which my parents had scarcely dreamed. For all the many ills that persist in Northern Ireland, and Derry in particular, I took elections, education and a sense of collective safety for granted. If, like everyone else, I resented the propensity of Northern Irish politics to look backward, I had the privilege of that past being something from which we were slowly moving away. And I got to see Liam Coyle leave Carles Puyol on his arse in the Brandywell when Derry hosted Barcelona. This too, John Hume had helped negotiate with the self-same steely benevolence with which he’d built the peace, and that rendered him so unshowily human with my own small hand in his.

There is a sense of something dimmed, of clouds rolling in, a bright light leaving the firmament. We are heartbroken and bereft, but grateful that his star could touch the earth.

Eoin McNamee

These were our fathers. They were a newly emergent middle class, although they would have refused any definition which implied that they left any of their own behind. They were the men in in suits who picked up the phone for the interned and the falsely imprisoned, for the neighbours and the neighbours children. They agitated for school funding and for college places. They attended the special courts at midnight. They counselled the families of the imprisoned and the unhoused. They were the men in worn suits always planning the next move. They were the pale, clever faces unpicking the fabric of corrupt governance.

They worked in unrewarded increments of equality, in the council chambers and the warped fabric of local government and courthouses. They built the credit unions. You saw them at housing tribunals. You saw them at funerals. They were unafraid and adamant and I still do not understand how they emerged so fierce and unswerving.

Some of them were killed for the service that they did. Some of them buckled under the weight of what they were expected to do. These were our fathers and imperfect but we loved them, the most deserving of that love though they never expected it and John Hume was first among them.

Kerri Ní Dochartaigh

When someone important to so many of us dies, big words are thrown around. Recollections, memories, accolades, awards; how could any of us even begin to speak of John Hume? One thing seems overwhelmingly important right now, in the midst of these charged, confusing times, and it is not an answer but a question: What kind of man brings peace to a land, at a time when it seemed the last thing even nearly imaginable?

John Hume was the kind of man that watched his neighbours living in harrowing poverty and helped found a community bank to try to make life easier. The kind of man who, on realising one of the vice-presidents at Seagate had an Irish surname, persuaded them to set up in the city securing jobs for huge numbers. The kind of man who people liked enough – on both sides of the political divide, on both sides of the Atlantic – to trust him, really trust him; and that’s where it all begins, right? A man who, when dementia had taken hold but he still wished to wander the streets of his beloved city, would always be safely accompanied home.

He was the kind of man who affected us Derry girls so deeply that one of us (Emma De Souza) literally went to court to protect the agreement he fought for, so peacefully, on our behalf. John Hume was the kind of man that one of us (Jenni Doherty, Little Acorns Bookstore) allowed sign her writer’s book chair twice; such was her admiration for him – the first man to buy her a pint instead of a half, talking to her of equal rights, on her 18th. The kind of man that another of us (Lisa McGee) actually wrote into her raw, hysterical TV show about that dark time period of our youth; that time when we did not know if we would ever, ever, feel safe.

The Halloween I was 9, I came home from the shop to find my (then) stepfather crying like a young wain. News had just reached him of the UDA mass shooting in Greysteel, the next village up from his. The youngest victims were his age. We were living in a terraced house on a Protestant (increasingly sectarian) council estate in the waterside of Derry city.

I loved that gentle, kind, peaceful man with all my heart. What kind of man brought peace to this land? A peace that put an end to nights like that being the ‘norm’? At the funeral of some of those murdered, a victim’s relative approached John Hume and told him her family had prayed that he would bring about the peace for which he strove, so no other family would have to suffer in that way. The kind of man that brought peace to this land was the kind of man that listened, and that wept.

Less than a year later, the first steps towards lasting peace were taken. Every single time anyone ever asks: ‘what kind of a man cries?’ – I think: ‘the kind of man that brings peace to a land in need of healing.’

Geraldine Quigley

There was a break in the radio show and an immediate sense that something momentous had happened – even before the words were out, I said to my husband, “It’s John Hume.”

The emotion I felt surprised me and I thought of those days in the late Sixties, when a generation of activists, recognising the indignity their parents were suffering, decided things had to change: the injustice of gerrymandering, the poverty, overcrowding and homelessness. The political disenfranchisement that had blighted the lives of the nationalist majority in the city.

My parents had raised their family in these desperate conditions. For them, John Hume brought hope. He was our own Martin Luther King Jr.

My mother, keen to educate us on the political earthquake we were living through, spoke of him in those terms: an intelligent man, one of our own, carrying forward the ideas of King and Ghandi, showing us a way forward. She recognised the inherent dignity of non-violent protest; the examples of India and of the civil rights movement in the southern states of America - how her own situation was mirrored in these foreign injustices.

But John Hume already had their trust and their respect. He was more than a politician; he was a social reformer. He fought for the ordinary person and was known in our house as much for the founding the Derry Credit Union, as he was for leading the Civil Rights movement, because the credit union transformed our way of life, gave us financial security, was built by the people and belonged to us.

Later, when the Civil Rights movement was swept aside by armed struggle, Hume still led as an MP and the people of Derry remembered and voted for him in their thousands. He held to the truth that politics was the answer, not guns. You couldn’t eat flags, he said, and he was right.

But he didn’t stop at words, working doggedly towards an idea of peace until he forced the change that he saw into reality. I wonder what he would have done, how far he might have risen, given his talent for strategy, his vision and determination, if he had been born in another, larger city, in another country. But he was ours, pure Derry.

I saw him once, in the mid-nineties, on his way to a book signing. These were the years of the Greysteel shootings, the Shankill Road bomb – dark days. I was shocked at his pallor and thought how the strain of the work had taken its toll, physically, on the man. And he was alone, no entourage, no assistants.

Many years later, I saw him again. By this time, we all knew that ill-health really had taken hold. My husband and I had ordered a taxi to take our daughter to the bus to university. A taxi duly arrived but there was someone in the passenger seat. The driver said, “I’m just taking John home. You don’t mind sharing, do you?”

John Hume was the passenger in our taxi, once more in the care of a citizen of the city that loved and respected him. Of course, we didn’t mind.

It was John Hume.

Colm Tóibín

There were two statements that John Hume repeated often. They seemed simple. The first was that you make peace not with your friends but with your enemies. The second was that there is no such thing as territory, there are only people. If used in any discussion about the North, these two statements took on the burden of truth. You could not argue with them.

Hume’s opponents could blame anyone they liked or be as intransigent as they wanted, but once Hume was opposite them, he did not score cheap debating points, but tried to look beyond the debate towards agreement and settlement. Part of his strength lay in making allies in Washington, Brussels and Dublin. It also came from his ability to win election after election. While he represented his constituents in the here and now, he also managed to represent fine aspirations and intentions, good reason and serious strategic and political thinking. He used tones and terms that were almost spiritual, that rose above the given moment towards some hopeful prospect – rather than a settlement that involved territory, an agreement between people.

Lisa McGee

Growing up I always felt very lucky that my greatest hero walked the same streets as me. John Hume had almost mythical status in my home town of Derry, his incredible intellect, his heart-stopping bravery, and his prophet like vision. Yet at the same time he was very much a man of the people, someone you could imagine having a cup of tea and a bit of craic with.

He changed all our lives for the better, in fact some of us may well not be alive today had he not created the peace process. Towards the end of his life John may not have remembered all that he did for us, but we will never ever forget. We will be eternally grateful. Rest In Peace Man of Peace.
– Lisa McGee is the creator and writer of Derry Girls

Colette Bryce

My abiding memory of John Hume is as my friend Mo’s lovely Da who would take us out for a run on Sundays. We’d always get an ice cream and a go on the putting green at Greencastle. He called us Mo & Co and I remember his warmth, his easy-going nature and good humour. We lived next door but one, and his house was the target of many sticks and stones in the bad years, not to mention the occasional suspect device that would require the arrival of Metal Mickey, the bomb disposal unit. He and his family paid a high price for his steadfast pursuit of the path to peace in the deeply polarised politics of that time.

The enormous esteem with which he and Pat are held in Derry needs no extra comment from me. He played a long game and, like his hero Martin Luther King, he had a vision. The veracity of that vision is underlined with every passing year of non-violence in Northern Ireland. In our uneasy moment, when the politics of division are again playing havoc with people’s lives, in the UK and on a global scale, we could do well to remember the philosophy of John Hume, the enduring power of hope over despair.
- Colette Bryce is a poet from Derry. Her Selected Poems is published by Picador.

Wendy Erskine

It was a sunny day yesterday in Belfast and as I sat in a cafe, watching people go about their business, I thought about the debt I, and everyone around me, owed to the exceptional and visionary man who had just died. Difference, John Hume said, was “an accident of birth” and therefore shouldn’t be a source of hatred or conflict. Here instead was a life focused on the relentless and creative pursuit of peace, to social justice and perseverance. In his Nobel prize acceptance speech he quoted Louis McNeice: “By a high star our course is set. Our end is life. Put out to sea.” Thank you for navigating those difficult waters in the brave and inimitable way you did.

Michael Longley

In 1968 Seamus Heaney, David Hammond and I toured the North with Room to Rhyme, a programme of poetry and song. John Hume came to the Derry gig. In a corner of the bar after the show he started to sing quietly to himself in Irish. He was in reverie: this was not a performance. But soon everyone there was listening, mesmerised by the quietude and conviction at the core of his personality.

Like many people with charm and charisma, John did not need to raise his voice. He brought to the tangle of Irish politics inwardness as well as eloquence. He thought and felt very deeply and this enabled brave and resolute action. He talked and he argued. He risked opprobrium but stood his ground. More than anyone else he made possible the Good Friday Agreement. We now recognise the real grandeur of the man and his achievements. John Hume was not just a politician. He was that rare thing, a statesman.

Bernard MacLaverty

I never met John Hume. The nearest I came to it was eating in the same Donegal restaurant one night. And on another occasion we walked past his summer place in Greencastle and looked over the wall at his house and gave it the thumbs up.

He was a principled leader who was courageous and non-violent but never afraid to confront wrongdoing whether by police, army or the IRA. He spoke for those of us who believed that no cause justified the death of a single human being. His voice was authoritative and compelling. His ideas made us nod in “agreement” – a favourite word of his.

He will be remembered with deep gratitude for the peace he brought us.

John Hume speaking to a British army soldier at a Magilligan anti-internment rally in Derry in 1972. Photograph: Jimmy McCormack
John Hume speaking to a British army soldier at a Magilligan anti-internment rally in Derry in 1972. Photograph: Jimmy McCormack

Ronan Bennett

Peace is not simply the absence of violence. The great leaders of the American Civil Rights movement, whom John Hume profoundly admired, understood that justice is the indispensable foundation stone of peace. Without justice a society might be quiet, if the repression is brutal and efficient enough, if the news media are complacent, if the political class unites in looking away, but it will never know peace.

John Hume’s greatness lies in his relentless pursuit of peace with justice over a political lifetime. His unwavering commitment to that simple principle led in the 1980s and 90s to dialogue with the Republican movement, for which he was vilified by many of those who now praise him as a towering figure of peace. Sadly, many of his most acerbic critics were from the south. They were not interested in the causes of the conflict. They wanted the IRA to put down its guns. They wanted quiet. They wanted a thing that John Hume knew could never be: peace without justice. In the face of sustained vitriolic personal attack, he held fast to what he knew was right. His moral and political courage was eventually recognised the world over. But it was a long, hard road.

The sad news of his death has brought out many who seem to think that his contribution to modern Ireland began and ended with the role he played in bringing the Republican movement, the unionists, and the British and Irish governments to the table.

But take a look online at the black and white footage of Hume standing his ground against armed police and British soldiers. Watch as soldiers put him up against the wall, spread-eagle and search him, in his own home town. Watch him be arrested and marched away.

Watch him upbraid the British officer whose men are firing rubber bullets at anti-internment protestors on Magilligan Strand. When the officer tells him he cannot march, Hume demands to know on what authority he is attacking the marchers. “The authority of your government . . . the government of Northern Ireland,” the officer answers. “That’s not our government,” is John Hume’s magnificent reply.

John Hume will be remembered as modern Ireland’s great peacemaker, a man of the highest personal integrity and of unwavering commitment to the principle of peaceful political activism. The courage he displayed in confronting a society built on discrimination and injustice should likewise be celebrated.

Seamus Deane

The three most consequential achievements of John Hume were that (a) he, with Gerry Adams, broke the Northern log-jam; (b) faced down the unionist-revisionist backlash against the peace; (c) won Irish-America to his cause.

Besides, he was from Derry.

Shane Connaughton

It was a wonder he wasn’t assassinated. His character was, many times. Especially by certain journalists. He persisted in talking to Gerry Adams despite the flak. Whatever their political differences, they wrought miracles. John Hume was a statesman. Noble in bearing, in voice, in hope. This world is a poorer place for his passing.

Not just Ireland alone. He has earned his place with the great ones of his country. And for all time.

John Hume and his wife Pat at home in the Bogside, Derry. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
John Hume and his wife Pat at home in the Bogside, Derry. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Donal Ryan

John Hume’s expression never seemed to change. For a man who fought so long and hard a war for peace and justice he never posed like a hero or a saint, though he had the strongest of claims to both titles. He was a mountain of a man who took up just the space of his own being. Whether he was being beaten into a ditch by the police at a civil rights march, or being frisked and frog-marched by British soldiers on the streets of his home town, or setting his back to the task of changing the world, he was stolid and stoic and calm and immovable. John Hume was a pragmatist, a master strategist and a true patriot, not of a blood-drenched illusion, but of the twin republics of freedom and peace. Buíochas, a Sheáin. Beidh tú beo go deo in ár gcroí.

Ed O’Loughlin

It would be easy to eulogise John Hume as the last in a line of Irish constitutionalist giants, people like O’Connell and Parnell, and his old friend and rival, Seamus Mallon, who struggled for peace, prosperity and respect for everyone on this island, regardless of origin or creed. But it would be mistaken to do so. Other such giants will rise when we need them, and they will all have been inspired by the life and work of John Hume.

Neil Hegarty

My father and “Johnny Hume” grew up together in Derry: they played cricket in the fields above the city; and later, in the 1950s, they went off to France as young men, for a sight of wider worlds. I like to think of these glimpses of the boy and the younger man, because we’ve become accustomed to images of the exhausted older Hume, his health compromised by years of stress and violence.

I honour the expansiveness of Hume’s vision, and his manifold identities – a man of Derry, of Ireland, of Europe – that lived together peaceably; and I remember his sheer physical courage in working for a peaceful resolution to the Troubles in the face of the most vicious and sustained criticism. I honour too the part played by Pat Hume, whose contribution should never be forgotten.

Darran Anderson
One day, when I was a boy, I popped in to visit my grandfather. A relative let me in, “Your grandda’s having a cup of tea with John Hume.” It was like being told “Oh, by the way, Moses is in the living room.” That’s the regard we held him in. And yet here he was among us, asking me about school and my ambitions for the future, down to earth, profoundly decent and engaged, like a generous teacher who never lost their spirit, roots or curiosity. 

You’ll read a lot about John Hume being a giant and he was, morally and politically. Seamus Heaney was right when he wrote that Hume “stood his ground with integrity” and “knew the big truth that justice had to prevail”.  He recognised that there could not be peace without justice and this began with the acceptance of difference. He viewed the conflict in much wider terms (encompassing the EU and the US) and simultaneously more local terms than most (what violence actually does to families). 

What interests me most about John Hume is how he did what he did, the personal cost of that, and how he and his family persevered. Imagine the principles, resolve and stoicism it takes to hold the line for 30 or 40  years. Imagine the weight of being right when the world seems upside down and hostility is coming from all sides. Imagine the temptation to just go elsewhere or seek a quiet life but carrying on anyway because you believe in justice and you know that no idea, even the dream of a united Ireland which Hume and I shared, is worth one second of the grief a child feels mourning a murdered parent. 

There are people alive today who would not be here if not for the likes of John Hume. Perhaps I am one of them, and my son. We will never truly know the debt of gratitude we owe him. So let’s begin, at least, to repay that debt, in Hume’s memory and the memories of others. Not to make the mistake of saying that is a closed chapter of history but to recognise that there is so much yet to be done, in gaining justice for every single one of our citizens so that they don’t have to live in fear, despair or deprivation. That’s John Hume’s legacy and it’s our turn to work on it. 
Darran Anderson is the author of Inventory: A River, A City, A Family

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