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John Hume: The Persuader by Stephen Walker – the price of peace

The author’s eminently readable overview is strongest when detailing the strain Hume lived under for years

John Hume: The Persuader
Author: Stephen Walker
ISBN-13: 978-0717196081
Publisher: Gill Books
Guideline Price: €27.99

In 1999, Irish Times journalist Conor O’Clery finished his book Ireland in Quotes: A History of the Twentieth Century with the one he chose as “Quote of the Century”. It was from John Hume, speaking on RTÉ’s Late Late Show in October 1998 after he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: “I always kept repeating myself - it’s the old teacher in me - that I hope that, in the future, the symbol of our patriotism will be the spilling of our sweat and not the spilling of our blood”.

Hume was persistent and stubborn over decades in uttering such mantras, but they were also regarded as words and sentiments that framed substantial progress, most obviously with the Belfast Agreement of 1998. As fellow Derry man Eamonn McCann put it, that accord essentially amounted to “Hume’s speeches from the 1970s codified into an agreement”. Hume was swamped with accolades as a result and remains the only person to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Gandhi Prize and the Martin Luther King Jr Non-Violent Peace Prize. He was elevated, celebrated, decorated and revered. Former British prime minister John Major told this book’s author Stephen Walker that Hume was an “ever-present good angel”.

That makes the task of his biographers challenging. Can they or should they bring Hume back down to earth? George Mitchell, who chaired the negotiations that led to the 1998 agreement, handwrote Hume a personal message in the aftermath: “History will rightly judge you to be the architect of peace”. Such is the broad consensus around that assertion that it is difficult to find a broader framework for assessing him and in this book, Walker, who first interviewed Hume in 1990 as a reporter with BBC Northern Ireland, does not really attempt to do that.

There is no cold hand of history here; this is a book from inside the Hume tent with a relentless focus on the man, his words and his champions. True, some of the criticisms from unionists concerning Hume’s language about Protestants in Northern Ireland and his communications with the IRA are included, but while Walker maintains that Hume’s actions “are not immune from criticism”, this contention comes on page 346 of 364 pages of mostly laudatory text.


The admirably long list of interviewees - amounting to 100 - that form the spine of the book also undermine it to a degree; too many of them are essentially saying the same things and it becomes repetitive. More judicious editing should have excised some of the fluff (“he would also cook a salmon once a year” on holiday in Donegal, we learn). Walker conducted most of the interviews himself, no mean feat, and they include a plethora of senior politicians in Ireland, Britain and the US, but also drawn on are 23 interviews with Hume by Frank D’Arcy from 2002-3.

Walker observes of Hume’s five children that “for the first time they have all jointly told the story of their parents and have spoken with love and honesty”. Throughout Hume’s journey, his wife Pat’s role was indispensable, and she receives due tribute for what was an exceptionally tough task; as Phil Coulter puts it, “there would be no John Hume without Pat”. Mark Durkan, Hume’s protégé and close confidant, drives crucial parts of the narrative.

There is little ideological probing of the nature of Hume’s nationalism, what social democracy meant to him, or the impact and legacy of partition. His address to a branch of the New Ulster Movement in 1970 generated a six-minute standing ovation, but we are not told what he said. There is much mention of his dialogue with Gerry Adams in the late 1980s but not enough on what they were talking about. The unshifting focus on Hume pulls the ground around him away. That is not to contend that Hume’s historical stature is not deserved; it clearly is, but a lot of the other relevant dynamics can get minimised. There is an abundance of interesting reflections in the book from those who observed him closely but the words of some of the contributors are just too exaggerated, as with Mary McAleese’s description of Hume: “He was a priest, he was a pastor. He was a prophet.”

For all the mention of his many trips to Dublin and what is labelled the “charm offensive” involved there is no examination of relevant Irish state papers from the 1970s and 1980s and what they reveal about Hume and a divided SDLP. Irish diplomat Daithi Ó Ceallaigh for example, met deputy SDLP leader Seamus Mallon in July 1985 and noted, “he deeply distrusts Hume”.

Walker succeeds, however, in providing a solid and eminently readable overview of the arc of Hume’s career, from straitened times in postwar Derry, one of seven children in a small house with an out-of-work riveter as a father, to seminarian in Maynooth aged 17 to teaching in Strabane and Derry, to involvement in the credit union movement and a smoked salmon business. He was “conflicted” about the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and was uncertain about entering electoral politics.

In October 1968 he walked on the pavement alongside rather than amid the Derry civil rights marchers. He was always working to prevent injury. It is observed that in 1969 “he held talks south of the border with Taoiseach Jack Lynch” but no detail on what was said is provided; nor is there much illumination of his attitude to British soldiers being sent to Northern Ireland.

The book is at its strongest in painting a compelling picture of the strain generated by his attempts to end violence and build up his contacts in Ireland, London and Washington while threats were made to his life and home; at that stage, records his daughter Mo, “It wasn’t cool having John Hume as your dad”. He was an extraordinarily effective networker and persuader while being a dishevelled, chain-smoking, drinking, singing, chocolate-chomping hypochondriac who would tell anyone willing to listen about his ailments, real and imagined. He was under enormous physical, mental and emotional pressure for sustained periods during which living was nomadic and there was no guaranteed income.

He was often secretive, depressed and difficult to be with; those who had to endure long drives with him often did so in silence. He was scarred by the failure of power-sharing in 1974 while his SDLP party leader Gerry Fitt (until Hume took over the leadership in 1979) was concerned he was “blind to everything but the precious Irish dimension”. His love of being an MEP is recorded, but again, there is little insight provided about his immersion in that world. Walker does, however, capture the sense of Hume as a sole operator leading a political party, which created many problems; as Tony Blair puts it: “I never thought of him as an SDLP figure. I thought of him as John Hume”.

He was being briefed regularly by the Irish government in relation to talks that culminated in the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 but chose not to share these briefings with his colleagues: he did not, in one of his favourite putdowns, give “two balls of roasted snow” about that or, later, criticisms of his talks with Adams, though that dismissiveness could mask deep hurt and anger, given the high stakes. It was Denis Bradley, one of his former students, who informed him the British government had also opened channels of communication with the IRA, but Hume’s reaction to that revelation is not adequately explored.

What mattered more, perhaps, was that when it came to the Downing Street Declaration in 1993 “Hume’s fingerprints were all over it”. Hume’s influence was also pivotal in allowing Adams to travel to the US in 1994 and Mike Nesbitt, then a journalist, provides one of the most striking images in the book; at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York Adams “was surrounded by television cameras. I counted upwards of 40 of them…then, in the corner, I spied John Hume. He stood alone, smoking a cigarette as he watched.”

It is widely believed he would have easily become president of Ireland in 1997 had he wished. Mary McAleese believes he would have been “a great president” but his son John is more accurate in maintaining he would have been poorly suited to that role, given his temperament and theatres of operation which were so expansive. He was also rubbish at small talk and often maddeningly vague: “dealing with Hume is like grappling with fog” maintained David Trimble. But he could also be crystal clear, repeatedly, in some of his messaging.

Hume probably stayed too long as SDLP leader; he had no interest in the mechanics of party meetings and structures or mundane details, but after the 1998 Agreement, Mallon as power-sharing deputy first minister and Hume remaining as leader of the party was far from wise as it, in Mallon’s words, “blurred the lines of authority”. His belief that voters would not forget his efforts and continue to stay loyal to the SDLP was naïve. Hume’s constant imperative was to bring violence to an end. That came at a price, including the decline of his own party. His own response to that, according to Seán Farren and Denis Haughey, was unambiguous: “If it is a choice between the party and peace, do you think I give a fuck about the party?”.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish history in UCD.

Further Reading

Hume’s disciples have done much to promote and curate his legacy including in the collection edited by Seán Farren: John Hume in his own words (Four Courts, 2018), containing extracts from key speeches, articles and interviews over the course of his long career. Hume’s long-time colleague Seamus Mallon’s eloquent memoir, A Shared Home Place (Lilliput, 2019) written with the assistance of Andy Pollak, contains high praise for Hume but does not mask their many differences: “John and I pursued our agreed political objectives in different spheres”. Anyone needing to be remined of why ending violence was such a priority for Hume should have a copy of David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, and Chris Thornton’s Lost Lives (Mainstream, 1999) detailing the 3,636 Troubles related deaths from 1969-1999, 56% of them civilians: “We hope readers will be affected, as we have been, by the powerful message they convey of what violence can do to individuals, and families and communities”. It is a great pity this book is out of print.

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter, a contributor to The Irish Times, is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. He writes a weekly opinion column