John Hume: A life in quotes

The Northern Irish politician’s career was marked by his gift for rhetoric

John Hume speaking during an appearance on the Late Late Show. File photograph: Alan Betson

John Hume speaking during an appearance on the Late Late Show. File photograph: Alan Betson



May 1964

John Hume’s first words in The Irish Times are arguably his most striking and enduring. They appeared in May 1964 when Hume, then a 27-year-old teacher, was still an unknown outside his native Derry. In the paper Hume dismissed the Irish nationalist narrative dominant since partition and urged a fresh emphasis on social and economic conditions in Northern Ireland in general and in his native city in particular. In doing so he offered a withering critique of the old Nationalist Party in the North and, by inference, a dismissal of old-style irredentist nationalism which had held virtually unmodified throughout Ireland since the 1920s.

Of particular significance was Hume’s demand for nationalist acceptance of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland (ie within the UK) and to work positively for change within that dimension.

“There is nothing inconsistent with such acceptance and a belief that a 32-county republic is best for Ireland. In fact, if we are to pursue a policy of non-recognition, the only logical policy is that of Sinn Féin. If one wishes to create a united Ireland by constitutional means, then one must accept the constitutional position.”

This change in position, were it to come about, he argued, would enable ordinary Catholics to seek to improve their lot within the constitutional process “without fear of recrimination”. “Such an attitude too, admits the realistic fact that a united Ireland, if it is to come, and if violence, rightly, is to be discounted, must come about by evolution, ie by the will of the northern majority. It is clear that this is the only way in which a truly united Ireland (with the northern Protestant integrated) can be achieved . . . If the whole northern community gets seriously to work on its problems, the unionist bogeys about Catholics and a Republic will, through better understanding, disappear.” He added, perhaps prophetically: “It will, of course, take a long time.”

November 16th, 1968

Following the baton-charging of the first civil rights march in Derry on October 5th, 1968, Hume led another march that year which, like its predecessor, had been banned by the then unionist minister for home affairs Bill Craig. Defying the ban and addressing the marchers inside Derry’s walls, Hume told them:

“We have broken the ban. This was an effort by Mr Craig to show the people of Derry to be divided and incapable of peaceful protest. We intend to throw that back in his teeth. We are within the [city] walls and will stay here. I am not a law-breaker by nature, but I am proud to stand here with 15,000 Derry people who have broken a law which is in disrepute. I invite Mr Craig to arrest the lot of us.”

The 1970s

January 31st, 1972

The day after Bloody Sunday in Derry, 13 men lay dead, the victims of the Parachute Regiment of the British army. A 14th would die later. John Hume, now deputy leader of the SDLP, which he helped found in 1970, described the seething rage of the Bogside in Derry. He told RTÉ: “Many people down there feel now it’s a united Ireland or nothing. Alienation is pretty total.”

Unionists repackaged the comment as Hume’s own opinion or that of his party, and the misrepresentation dogged him for years.

May 28th, 1974

During his time as a minister in a short-lived powersharing Assembly, Hume and his ministerial colleagues – both SDLP and unionist – had been holed up in their Stormont offices, penned in by protesting loyalists outside. According to Hume biographer Barry White, Hume told unionist leader Brian Faulkner: “[Edward Carson] once said unionism’s last fight would be between the forces of the right and the forces of the Crown. That’s it all started now. Once a confrontation between the loyalists and the British begins, it’s all over for what you would call unionism.” Faulkner is said to have agreed.

Winter 1979

Writing in the academic journal Foreign Affairs, Hume returned to an analysis which he had first addressed in The Irish Times 15 years earlier. His remarks prefaced greater intergovernmental involvement in the search for a political solution on Northern Ireland – especially on the part of the British government. He wrote: “I believe . . . that the perennial British view of the [Northern Ireland] problem as ‘their quarrel’ and not ‘ours’ is fundamentally wrong: Britain is included in the quarrel as a central protagonist, and must be centrally involved in the solution.”

The 1980s

The hunger strikes by Provisional and INLA prisoners at the Maze left 10 men dead and caused two crucial 1981 byelections in Fermanagh-South Tyrone. These were won by Bobby Sands, in the days before his death, and Owen Carron, who had been Sands’s election agent. In both cases, the SDLP did not field an official candidate. This move shattered the SDLP’s reputation as the main electoral voice of the Catholic/nationalist community. Hume described the impossible choice faced by his party in determining whether or not to stand against republican prisoners: “The SDLP would have been accused of lifting the siege of pressure on the British. That would have reverberated through other elections. It was a no-win situation. We would have drowned in the deluge. Politics is not only about principles but about the ability to put principles into practice. The second is as important as the first.”

July 13th, 1983

Hume was never a lover of the House of Commons, finding himself at odds with its deeply adversarial practices. His maiden speech to the Commons was described by a Conservative backbencher as “remarkable”. But it was a fiery debate on capital punishment for terrorist crimes that provoked Hume into a rare, yet most impassioned address to MPs.

“If the House wants the IRA to win, then hang them. Churchill was right when he wrote, in reference to British attitudes in Ireland, ‘The grass grows green on the battlefield, but never on the scaffold.’ If the House again erects a scaffold in my country, it will turn the whole of Ireland into a savage and bloody battlefield. For the sake of democracy, for the sake of friendship, for the sake of ordinary men, women and children, and for the sake of peace, for God’s sake, do not do it.”

The 1990s

December 12th, 1993

Following tortuous discussions with Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams which had lasted on and off since 1988, Hume was under intense pressure to detail the purpose of those talks. The BBC’s John Humphrys interrogated Hume and was treated to a response which typified Hume’s “single transferable speech”.

“The traditional nationalist mindset here is that this is our land, and my argument against that is that it’s people who are here and it’s people who are divided. Without people, it’s only a jungle and you can’t bring people together, only by agreement. Whatever form that agreement takes, as long as it’s an agreement, the quarrel is over and then at last we’ll start working together and as we work together, presumably, the old prejudices will be eroded and away down the road somewhere will emerge a new Ireland whose model will probably be very different from any of the traditional ones that we’ve been arguing about for the last 50 years.”


In the aftermath of the IRA ceasefire, announced on August 31st, 1994, Hume reiterated his conviction that the ending of IRA violence could facilitate a new political settlement for the whole of Ireland which would “earn the allegiance of all our traditions”. His comments sound quite measured given the atmosphere of the time: “That was the clearly stated objective of my talks with Gerry Adams. Since five British governments and 20,000 troops had failed to stop the violence, I took the view that, if the killing of human beings on our streets could be ended by direct dialogue, then it was my duty to attempt to do just that. I am naturally pleased that we were able to achieve this first step to lasting stability.”

On September 6th, 1994, Hume appeared in a photocall with then taoiseach Albert Reynolds and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams on the steps of Government Buildings in Dublin. The image of the three-way handshake between them was widely disseminated.

Hume said: “We reiterate that we cannot solve this problem without the participation and agreement of the unionist people.”


Following the IRA bombing of London’s Docklands in February 1996 which ended the group’s first ceasefire, Hume admitted six months later to biographer Paul Routledge how the turbulence of the years weighed on him. “It’s like butterflies in the stomach only 50 times worse . . . It’s not depression, but chronic anxiety – anxiety about everything, especially when I wake up in the morning.”

December 1998

Eight months after the conclusion of the Belfast Agreement and its subsequent ratification in joint referendums, Hume – along with unionist leader David Trimble – was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Accepting the honour in Oslo, Hume said: “Too many lives have already been lost in Ireland in the pursuit of political goals. Bloodshed for political change prevents the only change that truly matters: in the human heart. We must now shape a future of change that will be truly radical and that will offer a focus for real unity of purpose: harnessing new forces of idealism and commitment for the benefit of Ireland and all its people.”

The 2000s

September 23rd, 2001

“I just feel chronic fatigue, you know? . . . I’m going to have a more relaxed time, spend more time relaxing and walking,” Hume said, in an interview with Simon Hattenstone of the Guardian, after he had stepped down as SDLP leader.

– Quotes compiled by Dan Keenan