John Hume, the sort of creative politician the North needs right now

Hume’s message of reconciliation and his continuing relevance today lay in his total opposition to violence for political ends

Then taoiseach Albert Reynolds shakes hands with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and SDLP leader John Hume outside Government Buildings after  the IRA ceasefire in 1994. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Then taoiseach Albert Reynolds shakes hands with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and SDLP leader John Hume outside Government Buildings after the IRA ceasefire in 1994. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

Run a word search through John Hume in His Own Words and “reconciliation” will appear more than 70 times, a pertinent reminder that for Hume reconciliation was always an essential part of political progress in the North – the “healing process” as John often referred to it. From his entry into public life in the early 1960s John Hume stressed that without reconciliation northern politics would remain as frozen as they had been since partition, and even earlier.

Regrettably, frozen politics are what we have had in the North for the past year and, as recent events have shown, that freeze affects not only relations between communities in the North, but also North-South and Irish-British relations as well. The failure of the North’s two dominant parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, to provide joint leadership in promoting reconciliation, has allowed the sterile politics of the past to re-emerge and to replace the more hopeful era that followed the Good Friday Agreement. Instead of the latter, these two parties sulk in their respective corners heaping blame on each other and refusing to budge from their absolutist positions. With this return of zero-sum politics the indifference of many towards whether or not the Assembly and its Executive can be restored, is understandable.

In these circumstances it is tempting to believe the agreement is no longer fit for purpose and that it should be given a decent burial. However, to do so would be to follow a counsel of despair, not the kind of advice John Hume would ever have accepted. Instead, he displayed a creative capacity for initiatives to break the logjams of his day.

Nobel Peace Prize winners David Trimble and John Hume display the Alfred Nobel medals in Oslo City Hall in 1998. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Nobel Peace Prize winners David Trimble and John Hume display the medals in Oslo City Hall in 1998. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

In the darkest years of the Troubles, surrounded by intransigent unionism on the one hand, and by equally intransigent violent republicanism, many despaired of progress. Operating on the premise that politicians are elected not just to represent their own political base, but to solve problems, however intractable they might appear, Hume set about building alliances at home and abroad with the aim of creating circumstances in which not just political progress, but also economic progress could be made.

A tangible result of his initiatives was the establishment, against the odds, of the New Ireland Forum in 1983 in which traditional nationalist thinking about the North would be challenged. The Forum met this challenge with its recognition of the validity of the unionist identity and tradition, the first time such recognition was afforded by the leading parties of the nationalist tradition at the time. From it came the initiatives that led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement two years later, granting the Republic a consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

Parallel to these developments Hume used the opportunities afforded by membership of the European Union to promote social and economic programmes, frequently in conjunction with his two unionist colleagues in the European Parliament, Ian Paisley and John Taylor, and later Jim Nicholson. The same was the case when he participated in cross-party investment visits to the US. Underpinning these initiatives was his oft-quoted invitation “to spill our sweat together and not our blood”, and so jointly advance the process of reconciliation.

Above all, Hume’s message and his continuing relevance today lay in his total opposition to the use of violence as a means of achieving political goals. His opposition to violence was rooted in his Christian convictions and was profoundly inspired by his heroes, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. From that message, despite the criticism, came his meetings with Gerry Adams and the beginnings of what became known as the “peace process”.

John Hume with Bernadette Devlin, Austin Currie and Paddy O’Hanlon on a two-day sit-in hunger strike outside 10 Downing Street in October 1971 to press their demand for a public enquiry into the treatment of detainees in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Roger Jackson/ Central Press/ Getty Images
John Hume with Bernadette Devlin, Austin Currie and Paddy O’Hanlon on a two-day sit-in hunger strike outside 10 Downing Street in October 1971 to press their demand for a public enquiry into the treatment of detainees in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Roger Jackson/Central Press/Getty Images

This stand against violence was the characteristic by which Hume was best known, nationally and internationally. He argued strongly and frequently that in Northern Ireland and in all similar situations, violence was futile as a means of achieving its declared aims, reinforcing as it did the divisions its advocates aimed to overcome. Hume pointed to the long years of division which had preceded partition and of which partition was, therefore, a symptom not a cause. If Irish unity was to be achieved, it would only come about by those in favour of it persuading those opposed of its merits. To credibly enter into that debate, a process of reconciliation between both communities had to be engaged in. Hence Hume’s emphasis on promoting reconciliation within the framework of the three key relationships involving the people of Northern Ireland, the people of Ireland as a whole and the people of Ireland and Britain.

Critically, therefore, it is relationships that have had to be healed, not territory united. That message remains as relevant today as it has always been. This was the basis of Hume’s challenge to traditional nationalist assertions that division and partition in Ireland were solely Britain’s fault and, therefore, the only solution was “Brits out”. Instead, Hume made the principle of consent a key commitment in his very first election manifesto in 1969 and a year later when the SDLP was founded the same principle was enshrined in the new party’s constitution. Today, this principle is now widely recognised across the political spectrum and is enshrined in Ireland’s Constitution. Nonetheless, sustaining that consent, whether for the status quo or for future change, requires a reconciliation process that allays fears and suspicions, while, at the same time, building a sense of respect and solidarity across communities from all our traditions.

If a return to violence is highly unlikely, the crises that have prevented the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement over recent years have produced the present paralysis. It is not, therefore, surprising that some question whether the agreement still remains fit for purpose. While it is impossible to imagine another agreement that would be as comprehensive, or as widely accepted, political leaders, unconsciously or otherwise, discredit the present agreement by failing to engage in a genuine process of reconciliation. It is this failure which risks the North’s politics entering an even deeper freeze than at present, a betrayal of what the agreement was intended to achieve.
 

Seán Farren is the editor of John Hume in His Own Words (Four Courts Press), and a former SDLP minister in the Northern Ireland Executive

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