John Hume restored to his rightful place in Irish history

Maurice Fitzpatrick’s documentary lines up luminaries eager to set the record straight

“He understood where the endgame should be in Northern Ireland.” John Hume in 1971. Photograph: Watford/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty

Towards the end of Maurice Fitzpatrick's documentary In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America, the inestimable Eamonn McCann turns up to bemoan things that need bemoaning.

“The Bogside has become a tourist attraction,” he groans. “I listened in to one of these guys giving schoolchildren from southern Ireland an account of a history of the Bogside, in which John Hume didn’t figure until the Hume-Adams talks.”

These were the conversations between Hume, leader of the SDLP, and Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, that began to shift thinking in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

By that point, Hume had been a key force in Derry’s politics for more than two decades. He was a founding member of the SDLP in 1970 and he led the party from 1979.


“That’s the level of the distortion of history which supporters of the IRA are involved with,” McCann continues. “They have to. They can’t kill the truth.”

It would be overstating the case to argue that Hume has been written out of history, but, as Sinn Féin has risen and the SDLP has slumped, Hume’s efforts in doggedly edging towards the Belfast Agreement have been finessed upstage. Glance at the coverage following Martin McGuinness’s death and you could be forgiven for deducing that the late deputy first minister was the key force in the peace process.

“Was I concerned about that?” Fitzpatrick muses. “Maybe ‘concerned’ isn’t the correct word. I found it somewhat ahistorical, if I can put it like that.”

It was Hume and David Trimble who ended up with the Nobel Peace Prize. They took political risks and ultimately saw their parties carved apart by the DUP and Sinn Féin. The more extreme representatives of the two opposing factions have greatly enjoyed dominating the space that Hume helped clear.

“As Eamonn McCann was pointing out, the young people in Ireland have been told to either ignore John Hume’s role or to view it in minimalist terms,” Fitzpatrick says. “I find that extremely offensive. As a student of history, I find it very disturbing that the history isn’t properly recognised.”

Hume in America

Only a little of In the Name of Peace, which premieres at next week's Galway Film Fleadh, is concerned with righting these particular wrongs. As the bit after the colon confirms, the film has much to do with Hume's negotiations in the United States.

The director has managed extraordinary access: two American presidents; two former UK prime ministers; Gerry Adams; Jeffrey Donaldson; and (you saw this coming) Bono. How did he set about securing the participation of such luminaries as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, John Major and Tony Blair?

“It was difficult,” he says. “Which is not to say that any of them were resistant to the idea of a film on John Hume. It took a good deal of time to get through. It’s persistence. I don’t have any ‘in’. I am not born into any royal family.”

In fact, Fitzpatrick was born and raised in Belturbet, Co Cavan. He studied English at Trinity College Dublin and then set off on an extensive series of wanderings. He spent time in Norway and he has taught in Japan and Germany. “But I always kept an eye on Ireland,” he says.

Hume at a early morning demonstration in Derry, 1972. Photograph: Watford/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty

Fitzpatrick developed a particular interest in Derry. He made a film about Brian Friel's Translations and, in 2009, directed a study of several illustrious alumni of St Columb's College in that city. The Boys of St Columb's found fascinating things to say about Seamus Heaney, Phil Coulter, Seamus Deane and Eamonn McCann.

“I did really get hooked on Derry, making that film,” he says.

The SDLP’s beginnings

There are many tales to be told about Hume. He was raised in the city by the Foyle and initially studied for the priesthood before deciding to become a teacher. Like many of his generation, he was propelled towards politics by the civil rights movement of the late 1960s.

In 1969 McCann was among the candidates he defeated to be elected as an Independent nationalist member for Foyle in the Northern Irish parliament. A year later, he joined Paddy Devlin, Gerry Fitt and Seamus Mallon in forming the SDLP.

Mallon is refreshingly honest in the film. He argues that his former colleague did not take criticism well and really preferred to work alone.

Fitzpatrick says: "Hume had his own vision long before he became a practising politician. He nailed his colours to the flag in no less a publication than The Irish Times.

“He understood where the endgame should be in Northern Ireland. It wasn’t about pushing the Border a few miles to the north or a few miles to the south. It was about reconciliation. He was determined, and that had an effect on what was a party of leaders.

“Seamus Mallon is a brilliant man. The fact that he was deputy leader and wasn’t always taken into confidence – particularly on America – rankled with Seamus.”

It is interesting that, with so many interweaving narratives to consider, Fitzpatrick chose to examine Hume’s experiences in the US. Pat Hume, the subject’s wife, smiles as she describes how he was forced to approach the credit union to finance an early trip for meetings with Ted Kennedy.

The film reminds us that the journey to the Belfast Agreement was already under way during the Carter administration.

“If you are a documentary film-maker, the first thing you do is pick up the books on the subject – the definitive text – but they just weren’t there,” Fitzpatrick says.

“I had do a large amount of research to get to grips with this, much of which was oral research. I found I was writing a book, which is due out in October. What really got me interested in this line is that it’s virgin soil.”

Absent Hume

Now too unwell to participate, the contemporary incarnation of John Hume is conspicuous by his absence. But we see much archive footage of a determined man refusing to flinch in his commitment to justice and his determination to reject violence.

American president Bill Clinton meets Gerry Adams, John Hume and David Trimble at the White House in 2000. Photograph: Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty

We see him standing up to blithely unconnected paratroopers when attempting to take an anti-internment march down Magilligan Strand. A week later Bloody Sunday happened. Hume thought the march unwise. McCann felt it was inevitable.

The tensions between and across communities were locked in for another generation. Bono, who famously brought Trimble and Adams on stage before the 1998 agreement, talks about how Hume “took down the emotional temperature”. There is truth in that. But it is hard now to avoid the conclusion that Hume’s own party was the eventual loser.

“Roll the clocks on, and we have a major funeral in Derry,” Fitzpatrick says. “McGuinness is being recognised for his role. Ian Paisley jnr and those people from the DUP were anxious to make it clear what a role Martin McGuinness had. The history of the past 50 or 60 years shows us there was, between the DUP and Sinn Féin, a measure of being objective allies. They relied on each other for extreme opposition.”

The film does go some way to reclaiming Hume’s position. After making his qualifications, Seamus Mallon argues that his old colleague should be regarded alongside “Parnell and Daniel O’Connell”.

The greatest compliment may, however, come from the veteran English journalist Robert Fisk. “He has seen a lot and he told me that John Hume was the only politician who never told him a lie,” Fitzpatrick says.

There’s a sentence worth heeding.

  • In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America plays at the Galway Film Fleadh on July 13th. Bertie Ahern will be among those joining a panel discussion after the screening


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