Hume likens unionists to Afrikaners at literary award

The unionist mentality is that of an Afrikaner mindset, while that of the nationalist, throughout Ireland, is territorial, according…

The unionist mentality is that of an Afrikaner mindset, while that of the nationalist, throughout Ireland, is territorial, according to Mr John Hume.

Speaking at the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award presentation dinner at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham on Saturday night, the SDLP leader spoke of the right of the unionist people to protect "their identity, ethos and way of life" and acknowledged it as "a worthy objective". Every society, he said, is richer for its diversity.

The challenge, however, lay in the methods used, such as "holding all power in their own hands". Such attitudes led to "widespread discrimination and conflict". Addressing the unionist population, Mr Hume urged them to come to the table and participate in an agreement "that will protect your identity and ethos forever".

On an evening in which the literary legacy of Ireland, and Dublin in particular, was loudly celebrated as a prelude to the presentation of the fifth IMPAC Award to English writer Nicola Barker for Wide Open, a novel Mr Hume described as "entertaining, challenging and indelible", he delivered a heartfelt speech which was as international as the prize.


Referring to the territorialism of the nationalist majority on both sides of the Border, he said nationalists as a body believe "Ireland is our land". He accepted there was a defiance inherent in nationalist attitudes which declares, "You unionists are a minority, you cannot stop us uniting." But he stressed people have rights, not territory.

Earlier, much had been made of the Irish literary tradition, spanning the achievement of Swift to Yeats to Seamus Heaney, as the award presenter Gay Mitchell celebrated a buoyant new Ireland, light years removed from the country in which his brother Jim Mitchell had served as a Minister for Post and Telegraphs in the early 1980s.

He told a story about Jim Mitchell being approached at Lourdes by an Irishwoman who had waited more than five years for a phone.

Mr Hume, a Nobel Peace Laureate, praised the legacy and also spoke of "the burgeoning intellectual growth and talent" of the present generation. "Look at the literary tradition of the present generation in the North," he said, mentioning Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel, Seamus Deane, Michael Longley, Ben Kiely, Medbh McGuckian, Jennifer Johnston and others.

It was ironic that one of the finest Irish writers, Paul Muldoon, who was present, was accidentally left off Hume's formidable list.

Forthright and direct, Mr Hume's speech added an element of dignity to the celebration. It also honoured literature in its role as witness, as giving expression "to voices that shed light on the shadows of our lives". Voices that challenge and comfort. "The first half of the last century we have just left was the worst in the history of the world. Two world wars, 25 million people slaughtered in the second World War."

He looked weary, yet confident that conflict could be resolved. "All conflict is about difference, and difference should be respected."

Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby

The late Eileen Battersby was the former literary correspondent of The Irish Times