Gerry Moriarty: Hume’s pragmatic idealism shone out from the core of his being
‘It all went back to Derry and its people and expanded into a humane and generous view of Ireland and its people, and the world’
SDLP leader John Hume addressing the party’s 28th annual conference in Newry in May 1998. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien
On one of many trips to Derry in the lead-up to the Belfast Agreement of Good Friday 1998, my assignment was to get the low-down from John Hume on the state of the peace process. Hume, like DUP leader Ian Paisley then, could have his moods, but he was in good form that day. So, we went to the pub, and we had a long chat. Then we went to a local restaurant where Hume introduced me to his favourite Alsatian wine, Gewürztraminer, an aromatic white that takes getting used to. And we had another long chat.
I drove carefully back to Belfast the next day as wise as I left it. Hume notoriously barely told his SDLP party what was unfolding at key periods of the peace process so he wasn’t going to confide in The Irish Times at a sensitive stage of negotiations.
But if I didn’t come away with a story, I came back with insights into what motivated Hume. Over those few hours he opened up about his young life in the Bogside, about the grinding poverty in working-class Derry at the time, of the discrimination, the appalling housing conditions.
What was clear from that encounter was the absolute idealism at the core of Hume’s being. It was shaped in his youth, forged in the seminary and university in Maynooth, and expressed in his civic and political life for the good of the people of these two islands.
You can’t eat a flag; it is better to spill sweat than blood; in Northern Ireland it was people who were divided, not the land
But it was a pragmatic and realistic idealism. Hume had great entrepreneurial aptitude and flair and could have been a fabulously wealthy man. But he had no interest in personal fortune. Instead, his mission in life was to get people to help themselves, not to be caught in the tired old rhetoric of embittered nationalism; to challenge discrimination; to campaign for civil rights but also to be persuaders of unionism and to break free through education.
Practical, can-do man
He was a practical can-do man. As he recalled in that conversation, he saw that local people were being bled dry by money-lenders and that the banks wouldn’t lend to the poor, so he formed a credit union. He saw the need for jobs so he started a smoked salmon processing business. He worked to provide housing. He campaigned for a university in Derry.
Over those few enjoyable hours of conversation, you understood how the future statesman, politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate was formed. It all went back to Derry and its people and expanded into a humane and generous view of Ireland and its people, and the world.
Even in his mid-20s in the early 1960s and before the civil rights movement kicked off, he was putting structure to his single transferable speech. That is identifiable in articles he wrote for The Irish Times in 1964 where he outlined why unity only should happen through consent and, in an echo of James Connolly decades earlier, why it was that people had primacy over territory.
That was Hume, like Shakespeare, full of old clichés, but clichés he coined and then repeated beyond the point of tedium. But it didn’t undermine their truth: you can’t eat a flag; it is better to spill sweat than blood; in Northern Ireland it was people who were divided, not the land; why not an agreed Ireland; who is afraid of peace?
And he was astonishingly creative. He helped put coherence and shape to adopted concepts such as the principle of consent, respecting diversity, putting people over land, the three sets of relationships on these islands, showing that the IRA’s fight wasn’t against the British but against unionists who republicans said were fellow Irish people, and national self-determination expressed through two island-wide referendums as happened with the endorsement of the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
Even as a young history teacher in Derry, and married to the marvellously wise, warm and influential Pat, he had the answers. But in the face of unionist and violent republican obduracy, it took years of soul- and energy-destroying toil and frustration to gradually see those answers put into practice.
His eloquence and calm strength in disputation gave Northern nationalists a sense of pride and self-esteem
He was an uncommon politician. When the hope of the 1974 Sunningdale powersharing administration was destroyed through unionist, loyalist and IRA opposition and violence, and through a feeble British government, he didn’t give up. After every subsequent crisis and failure – and there was a litany of them – he picked himself up and started all over again.
He had no time for the small-mindedness of Stormont or for the Punch and Judy politics of Westminster. A Francophile and European, he did significant business in Brussels and Strasbourg, and also in the US. Washington and the European Union were where work could be done, where the pettiness of Belfast and purblindness of London could be circumvented. He made powerful friends and the likes of European Commission chief Jacques Delors, Ted Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, the Clintons, senior Irish diplomats, rallied to his cause when he needed them.
There is a generation in Ireland who only remembers the later dark, brooding Hume but for people of the 1960s and 1970s he was a captivating and inspiring figure. There are people who will remember the hope and headiness of the civil rights movement, and Hume at its centre. They will recall the radio and TV debates of that period where Hume made mince meat of hapless unionist politicians sent out to defend a rotten system of government. In equal measure, he put it up to the Provisional IRA and its representatives.
His eloquence and calm strength in disputation gave Northern nationalists a sense of pride and self-esteem and there were some unionists who could never tolerate him or forgive him for that. He was head and shoulders above all politicians on this island.
When word of the secret Hume-Adams talks came out in 1993, he was assailed from many quarters
As one little example I remember when the three Northern MEPs gathered in the King’s Hall in Belfast to address farmers about some particular agriculture crisis. The UUP’s Jim Nicholson decried the problems facing the farmers; John Hume next up to speak said, “We’ve got a problem, this is how we are going to resolve it”; Ian Paisley repeated what John Hume said.
And it wasn’t all heavy politics. The best fun always was at the SDLP annual conferences, which invariably reached conclusion deep into the wee hours with Hume singing The Town I Loved So Well or We Shall Overcome.
Where his career inexorably was leading was to the 10 years between 1988 and 1998. These were the years of his greatest achievement but also the years when he was a tormented, possessed, obsessive individual, when he seemed to inwardly howl at the unnecessary loss of life and the failure of others to see the reason and logic behind the answers he had fashioned all those years ago.
When word of the secret Hume-Adams talks came out in 1993, he was assailed from many quarters. But if unionists and elements of the Dublin media and commentariat didn’t trust Hume, most people on this island did. That was brought home poignantly and powerfully at the time in 1993 when the IRA killed 10 people on the Shankill, including bomber Thomas Begley, and when the UDA responded by killing eight people at Greysteel in Co Derry.
Hume was under fierce pressure to jettison Gerry Adams, which also would have meant abandoning the chance of an IRA ceasefire that came in August the following year. At the Greysteel funerals, a young woman made a point of breaking from the crowd and talking to Hume. Was she going to remonstrate with him, observers wondered? But no, she took his hand and said, “Mr Hume, our family want you to know that last night, when we were gathered around our daddy’s coffin, we prayed for you to succeed in your work for peace.”
Hume almost broke down, but that encounter also must have given him hope. People began to see he did have the answers. So, he pressed on and while many others deserve praise and credit for their commitment to the peace process Hume was the agitator, philosopher and visionary who found, charted and drove the road to resolution.