Seamus Mallon: I saw John Hume’s raw courage as he faced bloodthirsty Paras

‘John was the voice of calm as he stood on Magilligan Strand, just as he was so often’

John Hume has died in his home city of Derry. Harry McGee reports on the life of Ireland’s chief architect in the peace process and a man described by Bill Clinton as ‘the Irish conflict’s Martin Luther King’.

 

During the trauma of 1968-1970, the events in Derry, Burntollet and Dungannon had been given a new dimension for all of us. Television was the new phenomenon and it brought what was happening – in many cases live – straight into the sitting rooms of the people of Northern Ireland. However, it was not just the TV footage of the events that came into the home; it brought new faces, new voices and new attitudes into the lives of people hungry for knowledge of what was happening in our convoluted society.

John Hume was one of those new faces who came into our homes. Long before I met him in person, he had been in my sitting room many, many times, as he risked his life as he led his colleagues in the Civil Rights marches. It was then I saw for the first time his raw courage as he faced a troop of bloodthirsty Paras on Magilligan Strand and declaimed, “You may govern us, but you do not have our consent!”

It was that image of him in that confrontation, as he threw caution to the wind and challenged not just the Parachute Regiment, but also some of the marchers who were angry to the point of recklessness. John, as I came to know very well, was the voice of calm as he stood on Magilligan Strand, just as he was so often in moments of political chaos. During that dangerous and uncertain period, he had a tinge of a cleric about him which came, perhaps, from that stoicism which made him a man apart in all circumstances – be it during a riot on the streets of Derry or in a crucial meeting in the White House.

Seamus Mallon and John Hume at the SDLP’s 33rd annual conference at the Wellington Park Hotel, Belfast, February 2004. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Seamus Mallon and John Hume at the SDLP’s 33rd annual conference at the Wellington Park Hotel, Belfast, February 2004. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Politics for John was about achieving the objective which had been decided upon. He disliked political life which was constrained by routine and above all the repetitive rota of party meetings at which everyone felt obliged to speak – especially when they had nothing to say.

Supine secretary of state

When the powersharing executive and the incipient Council of Ireland was allowed to collapse by a supine secretary of state, Merlyn Rees, John saw very clearly that there could be no lasting political agreement until the unionist veto was removed. Thus began John’s Washington venture – fuelled by his conviction that it was only the power and influence of the US government that could ease Britain towards unshackling that 400-year-old veto. He made very clear his message to the American power-brokers, “It is only you in Washington that can make the difference – it really can put this together.”

How right he was, confirmed ironically by none other than Margaret Thatcher when in her autobiography she ruefully said, “The Americans made me do it.”

I worked closely with John since 1973, mainly as deputy leader of our party. Despite some public perceptions, there was no animosity between us. Yes, sometimes we disagreed on issues of policy and party management but whatever the tensions we never broke that bond of friendship which we both valued. The respect for each other, as people and as politicians working together through 30-plus years of strife, bloodshed and sectarian hatred, grew as we came to the end of our political careers.

John will be mourned by those who knew him in the political capitals of Washington, London, the European Parliament, and in Ireland, North and South. But he will be greatly missed in the Derry that “he loved so well” where despite his honours and his fame, he was, above all, “Our wee Johnny Hume.”

I know that, like William Butler Yeats, he would have agreed to:

“Think where man’s glory

Most begins and ends

And say my glory

Was I had such friends”.

Séamus Mallon was Northern Ireland deputy first minister and deputy leader of the SDLP. He wrote this tribute to John Hume prior to his own death in January 2020

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