John Hume drove US foreign policy on the North for nearly three decades

‘The key problem in Northern Ireland was that each side viewed the conflict as a zero-sum-game’

Former US president Bill Clinton with John Hume in 2005. File photograph: Joe St Leger

Former US president Bill Clinton with John Hume in 2005. File photograph: Joe St Leger


Simply put, peace would not have come to Northern Ireland in 1998 if not for John Hume. He brilliantly drove American foreign policy on Northern Ireland for nearly three decades – in Congress, in the boardrooms, and eventually at the White House.

In the early 1970s, as in Northern Ireland, Irish-Americans were divided between those who supported the IRA and Sinn Féin and those who rejected violence and took their cues from Hume. He opposed the effort of some Americans to support the IRA and Sinn Féin not only with funds, but who also sent weapons to the IRA to fight the British. Hume aimed to put America on a different path and worked tirelessly over decades for the US to engage the British and push for a negotiated settlement. He did so through his vision of a better future and the force of his vibrant personality. He befriended the most powerful Irish-American leaders and rallied them to his cause.

And, of course, his love of a good joke made him beloved. He and Senator Ted Kennedy began a lifelong friendship in the 1970s, pushing for peace in Northern Ireland. The two plotted out a new non-violent course for US policy. They remained friends until Kennedy’s death in 2009.

For 40 years, Hume was the intellectual architect and primary driver of the principles for peace. His SDLP formulated the 1972 policy document Towards a New Ireland, arguing for an agreement that addressed the three core sets of relationships – between nationalists and unionists in the North, between North and South, and between Britain and Ireland. These principles would eventually form the basis for the Belfast Agreement in 1998 which ended the violence. And of course win him the Nobel Peace Prize.

In the US, Hume argued strongly for an end to Irish-Americans’ funding of IRA weapons and he opposed the Irish National Caucus’s push for the MacBride Principles, which Hume considered an effective call for a ban on investment in Northern Ireland. Hume’s focus was on bringing investment and jobs into his community – and strongly believed it was important to reassure the unionist community that their zero-sum attitude need not prevail.

He believed both sides would win in a new Northern Ireland, whose peace could be negotiated to accommodate the desires of both traditions. In 1981, Kennedy, Daniel Moynihan and House of Representatives Speaker Tip O’Neill founded the “Friends of Ireland” in Congress, which lent support to Hume’s efforts to promote peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

The St Patrick’s Day statement became a way for Irish-American leaders in Congress to annually urge action on Irish issues. The pro-Sinn Féin Congressional Ad Hoc Committee on Irish Affairs would issue one statement; and the pro-John Hume Friends of Ireland would issue another. Each year, Hume helped craft the message – and it soon reached the White House.

Jimmy Carter was the first US president to echo Hume’s message, calling in 1977 on all sides, including Irish-Americans, not to support violence. His statement also promised additional US investment in Northern Ireland to support a political solution. Kennedy, who had pushed for the statement, called it “the most important and constructive initiative ever taken by an American president on the Irish issue”. Hume pushed for US support for investment in Northern Ireland and in 1985, Congress created the International Fund for Ireland, which appropriated $20 million annually for creating jobs in Northern Ireland. Supported by president Ronald Reagan, the fund made good on president Carter’s pledge.

Incredibly, in this age of partisan politics and budget cuts in the US, the fund continues to thrive. In its three decades of work, it has invested nearly $1 billion in more than 5,800 projects throughout Northern Ireland and the Border counties. It stands as a living testament to Hume’s vision for peace, reconciliation, and jobs. Hume also helped deliver on more visas for the Irish, as did the members of the Congressional Ad Hoc Committee on Irish Affairs. The Immigration Act of 1990 created the “diversity visa program”, which was cleverly written to admit immigrants from countries, such as Ireland, who had been cut out by existing laws.

On December 15th, 1993, taoiseach Albert Reynolds and British prime minister John Major put forward a “joint declaration” in which the British government committed itself to abide by the wishes of the majority of the citizens of the North, and the Irish government renounced its claim to the North until the people agreed to change its status. Hume had a major role in its development. It opened the door for the first meaningful negotiations in a generation and would result in the Belfast Agreement a long 4½ years later.

Bold vision

It was the direct result of Hume’s bold vision for Northern Ireland – and two decades of pushing for dialogue. He was cautiously supportive but knew full well it would take the US to help the two sides bridge the gaps. He knew it would take the US engaging Gerry Adams directly, as well.

The joint declaration spurred Adams and others in Sinn Féin to intensify their pressure on the US, to get involved to secure further concessions from the UK and instil confidence in the process. The form that pressure took was a request for an American visa for Adams. Simply put, Adams would not have got it had Hume not endorsed it. Although president Bill Clinton had endorsed giving Adams a visa during the campaign, he did not approve Adams’s first request in early 1993.

In October 1993, I invited Hume to lunch in the White House to seek his advice. While he was not yet ready to endorse the visa proposal, he said he thought things within the IRA were moving towards peace and advised me to watch events closely.

That message surprised me because for the last decade, Hume had advised against engaging with Adams. We spoke again in mid-December and, by then, Hume had changed his position.

After careful consideration, and in light of the new atmosphere created by the joint declaration, he believed that giving Adams the visa would help the peace process and that the president should do it. Hume not only had the best antennae for political change on the Irish scene, but he also had the ear of one of the most influential members of the Senate, my old boss, Kennedy.

Former US president Bill Clinton with John Hume in Dublin in 2005. Photograph:Joe St Leger
Former US president Bill Clinton with John Hume in Dublin in 2005. Photograph:Joe St Leger

I knew that if Hume were advocating that the president give Adams the visa, Kennedy and other leading Irish-American members of Congress would give it serious consideration. Hume shared the view of Dublin – that the British were handling the peace process “too starkly. Endorsing the process will take some time.” He argued that the US would have to engage. He believed giving Adams a visa would impel the peace process forward. The impact of a “no” would be significant. “But it threatens no one if it works.”

Hume then harped on his latest theme: how best to promote peace. He said: “It is people who have rights, not territory.” If we could shift the debate to the rights of people, not a discussion of territorial divisions, real and significant progress could be made. “The key,” he argued, “was changing people’s mindset. They have to see that everyone will gain if all rights are guaranteed.”

I had begun to understand that the key problem in Northern Ireland was that each side viewed the conflict as a zero-sum game. If one side gained, the other lost. Real progress would take changing that attitude. Hume had been trying to change that mindset by promoting investment, jobs, visas, and economic growth.

Ultimately, it was the win-win logic – Hume’s in fact – that persuaded Clinton to move forward. The step would not have happened without Hume’s endorsement and work to gain broad political support for the move.

Hume continued to press behind the scenes for a ceasefire, which finally came in August 1994. Six weeks later, Protestant paramilitaries announced their own ceasefire. And throughout the process of forging peace, Hume played the key role behind the scene – and sometimes front and centre – in pushing for his vision of a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland.

President Clinton visited Ireland in 1995 and made a point of visiting Derry with Hume. The message was clear – peace would not have occurred without Hume.

His efforts continued throughout the end of the IRA ceasefire in 1996, constantly reaching out to the White House, Congress, and leaders of both the unionist and nationalist communities to press for peace. Adams and Hume met the IRA leadership. In July 1997, the IRA restored its ceasefire.

John Hume introduces US president Bill Clinton in Derry in 1995. Clinton made a point of visiting Derry with Hume. The message was clear – peace would not have occurred without Hume. File photograph: Joe St Leger
John Hume introduces US president Bill Clinton in Derry in 1995. Clinton made a point of visiting Derry with Hume. The message was clear – peace would not have occurred without Hume. File photograph: Joe St Leger

The new governments in London, led by Labour’s Tony Blair, and in Dublin, led by Fianna Fáil’s Bertie Ahern, were committed to negotiations. So was Clinton. He and his envoy, former senator George Mitchell, worked tirelessly around the clock and finally secured the Belfast Agreement in April 1998. It ended the bloody conflict that cost 3,500 lives.

The peace in Northern Ireland is now irreversible, but the society is still divided, with great economic disparities between the two communities.

The Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended and the issue of decommissioning of arms derailed progress. With a strong push from Hume and his friends in the US, the IRA agreed to disarm in September 2005.

Today, arguments continue about police reform and the continuing activities of the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland from both communities. From the start of the Troubles in the 1970s, Hume relentlessly fought, cajoled, and charmed anyone who could help promote his cause of a just Northern Ireland.

For four decades, he was the primary adviser to US presidents, senators, members of Congress, and leading Irish-Americans in the search for peace. Certainly, others deserve great credit, including Adams, unionist leader David Trimble, and successive leaders in London and Dublin.

Driving force

Bill Clinton’s efforts unquestionably hastened the day of peace. But throughout it all, Hume was the driving force for peace and its intellectual and moral leader. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee recognised Hume’s extraordinary contribution when it rewarded him and Trimble in 1998 “for their efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland”.

Hume is the only person to also be awarded the other two major peace awards, the Gandhi Peace Prize and the Martin Luther King Award. In 2010, Hume was voted “Ireland’s Greatest” in a public poll by RTÉ.

While his SDLP has been eclipsed by Sinn Féin in the polls, Hume’s contribution to peace will remain in the history books. For three decades, he worked across the US to put Washington on the right side of history.

Today, there is an “agreed Ireland” where the killing has stopped because of his work. Today, more than 20 years after the first IRA ceasefire in August 1994, the peace process has stemmed the violence, but the two communities still have not reconciled. They remain stuck on the injustices of the past and refuse to compromise on a range of issues. The so-called peace wall that divides the two communities in Belfast still stands.

So only part of Hume’s vision has been realised. The peace would be stronger if he were still there pushing, prodding, and making us all see the better angels in our nature. His great legacy demands the leaders of Northern Ireland fulfil that dream.

Nancy Soderberg was deputy national security adviser to Bill Clinton and his key adviser on Northern Ireland. She also served as an ambassador to the United Nations and is currently president and CEO of Soderberg Global Solutions and the director of the Public Service Leadership Program at the University of North Florida