John Hume: The US connection and the making of a documentary
Politician realised America had a key role to play in reconfiguring Anglo-Irish relations
More than anyone else, John Hume was able to communicate the injustices felt by Northern Ireland Catholics and the need for new, radical non-violent approaches to resolving them. File photograph: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty
John Hume was an exceptional figure from his first entry into public life in the 1960s: in his stewardship of civil rights protests in Derry; in his impact as MP for Derry in Stormont; through his media appearances and newspaper columns.
More than anyone else, Hume was able to communicate the injustices felt by Northern Ireland Catholics and the need for new, radical non-violent approaches to resolving them. He continued to do so for the rest of his political life in the parliaments to which he was elected in Northern Ireland, Britain and Europe. Yet it was in his perception that the United States had a key role to play in reconfiguring Anglo-Irish relations that John Hume’s impact was most far-reaching.
In a book and documentary film on Hume’s activities in Washington DC, In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America, I traced how Hume channelled that Irish-America potential into a powerful political constituency at the federal level of US government.
Together with Irish diplomats, he forged the “Four Horsemen”, a coalition of Irish-American politicians steered by Tip O’Neill, speaker of the House of Representatives, and Senator Ted Kennedy.
This new concentration on Ireland in US Congress recruited the support of successive US presidents who relied on Congress to pass their legislative programmes, skilfully breaching the historic British veto in Washington on US political engagement in Northern Ireland.
An early instance of the new co-operation between Congress and the Executive on the Irish question came when US president Jimmy Carter issued a statement on August 30th, 1977, which encouraged a powersharing government in Northern Ireland and promised US support for jobs in Northern Ireland on the condition of peaceful circumstances: on the face of it, a rather neutral statement.
Yet, as Carter recalled, in interview for the film: “The State Department was not in favour of what I did . . . but I didn’t really consult with them too thoroughly”.
Carter did, however, consult with O’Neill who, as Carter stated, “would quote John Hume and his efforts for peaceful resolution of the Irish problem”. Thus, Carter became the first US president to defy the orthodoxy in Washington of non-involvement on the Irish question.
Making a documentary on Hume’s role in causing such a political transformation in Washington without Hume’s participation posed difficulties. Besides, Hume was highly discreet about his periodic visits to Washington. Still, the results speak for themselves: from the formation of the Four Horsemen and the Carter statement, to the strong American backing for the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, there is a consistent through-line of John Hume’s influence.
Hume’s influence was most pivotal during the presidency of Bill Clinton, whose interventions for the assembly of peace in Northern Ireland were crucial. Clinton consistently identified in Hume’s constitutional and reconciliatory principles a viable future for Northern Ireland.
Hume showed extraordinary prescience in mapping out a peaceful resolution to the Irish conflict as well as courage, determination and imagination in fulfilling that vision to create new, broadly acceptable, political structures. For that achievement, John Hume will be numbered among the greatest figures of Irish history.
Maurice Fitzpatrick wrote, directed and produced
In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America, (IFB/RTÉ) in 2017 and he is the author of John Hume in America (Irish Academic Press, 2017)
In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America will be broadcast on RTÉ One tonight (Monday) at 9.35pm.