Tony Blair: John Hume was a visionary titan who helped shape my politics
The SDLP leader’s name now stands next to those of Willy Brandt and Nelson Mandela
John Hume was a political titan. He was a visionary who saw how the world was shifting as we approached the 21st century and believed the historical struggle in Northern Ireland was of a bygone age. He found a way to take the gun out of Irish politics and a constitutional path forward to achieve justice and peace – and in doing so cleared the ground for the seeds of peace to be planted. In what had been barren political soil, he helped the seeds to bloom.
Northern Ireland was a problem I was determined to tackle when I came into office. Ireland is in my blood. My mother was born in Donegal and, when I was a child, my family used to holiday near Ballyshannon each summer.
Many of my formative experiences were had on the beautiful island. It was there I played my first guitar chords, chased girls and drank my first Guinness. But these holidays came to an end in 1969. The Troubles had begun.
Over the next couple of decades, news of the conflict, of violence and reprisal, sectarianism and ethnic nationalism, became agonisingly all too common. Bloody Sunday in John’s hometown of Derry. The bombings in Dublin and Monaghan. Enniskillen. Each and every incident pushing the prospects for peace further away. With this discord, the names and reputations of antagonists and protagonists alike also became known to households in Britain.
Battle of values
And just as those early years in Ulster had helped form my childhood, this battle of values, between reconciliation and conflict, helped shape my politics. So too did John’s efforts to resolve it. It was not by absolute decision, or by saying boundaries don’t exist, but something quite simple: by finding a way of living together.
As I first made my way into politics in the 1980s, John was leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. He spoke to the Labour Party in Blackpool the year I gave my first leader’s speech in 1994. In that address, I spoke about the information revolution that was under way: another issue in which I felt John’s influence and which he was way ahead of his time in seeing. He believed that through revolutions in technology, telecommunication, and transport, the world was becoming a much smaller place.
The world was certainly smaller than that of the 1920s, when the Irish Border had been drawn. At that point, Britain had wanted to shut out enemies on the continent. But post-second World War and with the creation of the European Union, the nature of the problem had changed.
There were now many more bonds that united people than divided them. And after Ireland had undertaken a process of self-modernisation after joining the European Union, economic disparity was no longer an aggravating factor.
John also saw global convergence, liberalisation and openness as the guiding lights of the 20th century. As he said, he was a Derry man, an Irish man, but also a European. And he was a student of Europe’s history, something that would influence the path he set out to peace. He was profoundly impacted by the continent’s experience through the first half of the 20th century and how out of Europe’s darkest hour came its greatest achievement.
One of the stories he used to tell was about his first time in Strasbourg. There he walked across the bridge to Kehl in Germany and took some time to reflect on the continent’s history. Little more than two decades before, the fields of Alsace, the Ardennes and the Ortenaukreis had been scenes of the horror. He thought that if anyone had said then that one-quarter of a century later there would not only be peace, but a unified continent working together for common interests, they would have – in John’s words – “been sent to a psychiatrist”.
That Hume could reach across the whole political spectrum was because he was of his political party, but not constrained by it
It is a sentiment I knew all too well. In 1997, if someone had told me that Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness would be sharing power in Northern Ireland by the time I left 10 Downing Street, I would have thought they were mad.
But that it happened was, to a large degree, because of John. He understood that when there are only two alternatives – in this case, of justice, but with force and violence on one side and on the other an unjust status quo – there will be no resolution. But in finding a third way, he helped people see that there was a different way forward altogether.
This was particularly influential in the US, where his relationship with presidents from Carter through to Clinton and senators such as Ted Kennedy and George Mitchell meant he was often referred to as the 101st senator, from Northern Ireland.
Intelligence and charm
And frankly, he could have been a successful politician anywhere, such was his intelligence and charm. He was the only person who was at home in every single point, or position, within British and Irish politics. He was always the person I turned to for a sense of what might be done – and I often found myself not in negotiation with John, but getting mentored by him.
That he could reach across the whole political spectrum was because he was of his political party, but not constrained by it. It is why his name now stands alongside Sadat and Begin, Brandt and Mandela, as people who have charted a new way forward for groups divided by their differences.
But John also understood that finding common ground was only a beginning. And just as most thought peace would not be possible in Northern Ireland, once progress has been achieved, people can fail to appreciate that it can be reversed.
This is why he believed that we should all study what happened in Europe and in Ireland; that every generation should relearn the lessons of the past. He believed lines that divide us aren’t those on maps; that all conflict was about seeing difference as a threat. And he believed in the open mind. His insights have relevance far beyond that of Northern Ireland and the legacy he leaves behind is one we should protect; rather than trample on the garden we all created, we should continue to help it blossom.
Tony Blair served as prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007