John Hume has place in pantheon of Irish nationalist leaders such as O’Connell, Parnell and Redmond

‘I was honoured to be the Dublin observer at the meetings of the Bunbeg parliament’

From left are then house speaker Tip O’Neill, then US president Ronald Reagan, John Hume, senator Ted Kennedy and then Irish minister for foreign affairs Peter Barry, on Capitol Hill, Washington DC, in 1984.

From left are then house speaker Tip O’Neill, then US president Ronald Reagan, John Hume, senator Ted Kennedy and then Irish minister for foreign affairs Peter Barry, on Capitol Hill, Washington DC, in 1984.

 

John Hume changed the political agenda for both parts of Ireland in the second half of the 20th century. In doing so, he made possible powersharing government in Northern Ireland, enhanced co-operation between both parts of Ireland and the normalisation of relations between London and Dublin.

Up to the 1960s, there was a general acquiescence in Éamon de Valera’s approach that the British had partitioned Ireland in the 1920s and that it was a matter for them to undo it. There was little regard for the unionist position. Hume saw the situation differently. Partition had not been forced on Ireland by Britain but was the inevitable outcome of the conflicting demands of two groups of Irish people. In 1964, Hume set out in The Irish Times the agenda which was not only to dominate his political life but was to become the dominant influence in Dublin and London and ultimately in Washington and Brussels as well.

Seán Donlon is a former ambassador to the US and former secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs. He played a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process. File photograph: Dave Meehan
Seán Donlon is a former ambassador to the US and former secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs. He played a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process. File photograph: Dave Meehan

The three principles underlying his agenda were: violence was rejected, there could be no Irish unity without the consent of the Northern Irish majority and, meanwhile, there had to be a recognition that nationalism and unionism were equally acceptable and legitimate political beliefs.

The Hume principles formed the basis for the SDLP, which he co-founded in 1970 and was subsequently to lead. They eventually became the basis for the policies of the main political parties in Dublin, were supported by successive British governments and were the pillars on which successive agreements starting with the 1973 Sunningdale Communique were constructed.

Outside Ireland his task was even more onerous. Not everyone understood the nature of the complex, Irish problem

The final convert to the Hume agenda was Sinn Féin/IRA and Hume’s monumental agreement with Gerry Adams in the 1990s made possible the end of IRA violence, the Belfast and subsequent agreements leading to the peace currently enjoyed in Northern Ireland.

Hume’s success in having his agenda adopted and implemented was an extraordinary achievement and earns him a place in the pantheon of Irish nationalist leaders such as O’Connell, Parnell and Redmond, who promoted nationalist objectives without resort to violence. During his political life Hume never veered from the peaceful path on which he had embarked in the 1960s.

Workload

His workload was by any standards very heavy. He was on the ground in Northern Ireland, growing the political party he co-founded. At the same time, he was a regular presence in Dublin, London, Washington and Brussels. In the turbulent days of the Troubles, his was the voice of hope and of reason in Dublin where the esteem in which he was held was such that he was approached by more than one political party and on more than one occasion to allow his name to be put forward for the office of president of Ireland.

Outside Ireland his task was even more onerous. Not everyone understood the nature of the complex, Irish problem and he needed all his patience and his skills as a teacher to work his way around Washington, Brussels and London. He was particularly at home in the US political scene, where his renunciation of violence and his adherence to the civil rights agenda struck a responsive chord. Brussels was also fertile ground, because of Hume’s conviction that the European project, so successful in achieving German/French reconciliation, could do the same for Northern Ireland. As far as Westminster was concerned, he found the layers of tradition difficult to penetrate, but without his support, the Irish government’s negotiation of the landmark 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement would not have been possible.

Relationship

My relationship with him was both personal and professional. Though we had both been seminarians in Maynooth in the 1950s, our paths did not cross until he visited Boston in 1969, where I was consul general for Ireland.

In the crazy days at the beginning of the Troubles, their kitchen in Derry was like the Situation Room in White House or the Cobra Room in Downing Street

Our professional relationship was especially close in the 1970s when I was the unofficial envoy from Dublin to the Northern Ireland political parties. To facilitate continuing contact during the turbulent summers, we holidayed together with our young families in Bunbeg in Donegal, a place of refuge at the time for many SDLP politicians and supporters. I was honoured to be the Dublin observer at the meetings of the Bunbeg parliament. As in any diplomatic situation, there was also an element of fun. We took boat trips to the island of Gola, we climbed Errigal, had picnics on the beautiful Magheragallon strand and had many very late-night singsongs in the Óstán Gweedore. Hume was the life and soul of these gatherings, to which he also attracted Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel and Seamus Deane, later to become the Field Day group, and others from the fields of music, literature, architecture and law. When abroad, he added his charismatic gift for entertainment to his political satchel. There can be few political theatres in the western world, including the White House, where he has not performed Derry’s anthem, The Town I Loved So Well, often accompanied by its composer Phil Coulter.

No words about John Hume would be complete without an acknowledgment of the role of his wife, Pat. In the crazy days at the beginning of the Troubles, their kitchen in Derry was like the Situation Room in White House or the Cobra Room in Downing Street. The only difference was that in the Hume house Pat always had ready on the Aga a boiling kettle for the tea and a pot of Irish stew for all comers. She organised the disorganised John, kept his diary, briefed him on his next meeting, booked his flights, dealt with his constituents, greeted and fed visiting politicians and journalists and somehow always managed to look calm and unflustered.

Her contribution to the achievement of his agenda in the political days was massive, as was her looking after his welfare in the later days.