Pat Hume: The woman who never gave up
Pat Hume played a key role for the people of Derry in her 60-year partnership with her late husband
Pat and John Hume at the launch of Bertie Ahern’s autobiography in Dublin. File photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times
Pat Hume can move mountains. She had to scale so many obstacles working alongside her husband John during times of great personal and political risk. She took her husband’s good suit to be dried when he was soaked by a water cannon on the streets of Derry in 1968. When John set up Derry Credit Union she made sure the money and accounts were clear.
Pat was in her own right a brilliant community politician; she ran the constituency office dealing with community issues, housing and poverty. Every person, irrespective of religious identity, was treated with respect and compassion when they sought her assistance.
She stood beside John in a lonely place after he was shunned for talking to men who others didn’t want to talk to. She was a brilliant thinker and close adviser to John at all the key political moments. After the Shankill bombing in 1993, Pat began to doubt if the talks with Sinn Féin would work. But she was convinced by John and by the response of bereaved victims after the Greysteel shooting, who prayed for John at the wakes of their loved ones and asked him to keep going.
She was a wonderful mother and protector of her family. When loyalists and republicans targeted the family home, both she and the children were at risk. One night when John was away, republicans threw a stone through the living room window along with a petrol bomb with the Hume children inside.
That was the kind of danger she faced, occasionally taking her children by the hand and ushering them to safety in Donegal. And still she held out her hand and not a fist, holding on to the belief that there was, and still is, a non-violent way to resolve the conflict. She accompanied her peace-building work with justice.
She made the cups of tea for the powerful “chats”, allowing politicians to find ways to counter the violence that had become so normal. She took it all in her stride. There were phone calls from journalists and politicians to be answered at all hours and multiple concerns to be addressed with a constant stream of visitors to her home. John was preoccupied abroad so it was left to Pat to work out the logistics.
Her neighbours were glad to help out and were there to console her as well as to share a laugh.
One of the laughs came from an unusual source. In 1974 John had a ministerial car and his driver took ill bringing him back to Derry. Pat put the sick man in a bedroom and called the doctor. When the driver was asked to roll up his sleeve, his arm was covered in tattoos that said “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right” and “For God and Ulster”, which he protested he had done in his young and foolish years.
Pat made him tea and toast and he slept soundly that night. He told her afterwards that none of the drivers wanted to take John to Derry but he had pulled the short straw. Her children came to love the driver for the duration of the time that John was the minister of commerce.
How did Pat Hume raise five children in the midst of this mayhem? If parity, like charity, starts in the home, the Hume children are the proof of that. I got to know Mo Hume, Pat and John’s daughter, through her work in El Salvador. She continues to work on human rights concerns at the University of Glasgow. She is a chip off the old block, following the example of Pat and John, as a front-line human rights defender.
Pat started her career as a teacher, bringing in money when John was out of a job following the collapse of the power-sharing arrangements and the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974. She remains a role model by practising what she preaches and the people of Derry know it, giving her a three-minute standing ovation when she walked into the Guildhall on the 50th anniversary of civil rights.
She has talked about what life was like following John’s dementia. This week her family spoke highly of her constant care for John during his long years of illness. In her interview on RTÉ in 2015, Pat talked insightfully about John’s loss of memory so we could all learn how to better respond to the issue of dementia.
John’s mantra “we need to decommission mindsets” was something Pat knew off by heart and it was a challenge. But she never gave up. I cherished her hugs as she knew how much I needed them to cope with the abuse that was being thrown at women, like myself, in the midst of the peace talks. Bríd Rodgers – another inspirational woman – said Pat knows how to pour oil on troubled waters. She is as wise as she is clever, an astute politician staying calm and unflustered while making tough decisions.
Pat became a champion for victims of the Troubles when appointed to the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund in 1998, just after the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement. It had been said that there are people alive today who might not have been because of John’s good work. And there are children who were educated who might not have been because of Pat. Her work with victims included grants for their children to attend college and receive assistance.
Like most of Pat’s work, that is an untold story. I watched as Pat, with Daphne Trimble, wife of first minister David Trimble, went fundraising around cities in the US and her public speeches made us want to dig into our pockets.
Pat was awarded an honorary doctorate from Ulster University in recognition of her work, presented in her own city at Magee College in Derry. Pat is loved and respected, locally and globally, and is widely recognized, despite wanting to stay out of the limelight.
It is time to return those hugs and help recharge the batteries after the passing of her beloved husband. It would have been their 60th wedding anniversary in December.
It is fitting that the John and Pat Hume Foundation is named after both of them. I hope we can fulfil the Foundation’s mission to promote peaceful change and reconciliation. They are so much needed in our still troubled land.
Monica McWilliams represented the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition in the Multi-Party Peace Talks leading to the Belfast Agreement. She is currently writing a memoir, to be published by Blackstaff Press next spring