Bertie Ahern ‘would not like to be a John Hume’ in US now

Ex-taoiseach pays tribute to Nobel Peace Prize winner at documentary screening

Bertie Ahern said: “I wouldn’t like to be a John Hume over there [in the US] now trying to get attention, whether it was [for] Turkey, Syria, Angola or Sudan...” File photograph: Getty Images

Bertie Ahern said: “I wouldn’t like to be a John Hume over there [in the US] now trying to get attention, whether it was [for] Turkey, Syria, Angola or Sudan...” File photograph: Getty Images

 

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern has said he “would not like to be a John Hume” in the US now, trying to elicit support for peace in Northern Ireland.

Speaking at the screening of a documentary about Mr Hume at the Galway Film Fleadh, Mr Ahern paid tribute to the former SDLP leader and 1998 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s tireless work in the US. However, he noted the atmosphere in Washington DC now would be very different.

“I wouldn’t like to be a John Hume over there now trying to get attention, whether it was [for] Turkey, Syria, Angola or Sudan. I think it would be a hard job to do, even if you were John Hume,” Mr Ahern said, to applause.

Sort out differences

Mr Ahern also reiterated his view that the two main parties in the North should sort out their differences and fulfil their obligations to their electorate in relation to pressing issues such as Brexit.

“It really irks me that the people of Northern Ireland are being treated in this way, and when they desperately need their political leaders to be playing a full role... in that they are arguing about other things,” he said.

Mr Hume’s wife Pat Hume was among the packed audience at the screening of In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America, directed by Maurice Fitzpatrick, at Galway’s Town Hall Theatre.

The documentary includes interviews with Mr Ahern and key Irish negotiators in relation to the Anglo-Irish and Belfast Agreements, former US presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, former British prime ministers Tony Blair and John Major, politician and journalist Eamon McCann and several US senators and congressmen.

Concurred with frustration

SDLP MLA Claire Hanna, who participated in a panel discussion after the screening with Mr Ahern, Prof Paul Arthur and Mr Fitzpatrick, concurred with Mr Ahern’s frustration in relation to the suspension of political activity.

“By going into opposition last May, we thought that , nearly 20 years on, the structures and the people involved were mature enough to deal with these problems,”she said.

“Even today, EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier is meeting representatives of Wales and Scotland, ” she noted.

The EU partnership involving Dublin and London had been crucial, and this would be lost after Brexit, she said.

Mr Ahern described his personal friendship with Mr Hume and how the latter had a “tradition of dropping off in Drumcondra”.

“His view was inclusivity... you tried and made as good friends as you could in Westminster, which wasn’t easy, and do it in America and do the same in Dublin,” Mr Ahern said.

“He realised you had to have power if you were going to have influence,” he said, noting there were not too many people who could walk into Leinster House and “doddle down” to the Fianna Fáil rooms and then to Fine Gael and “spend an hour in each”.

North-South referendum

Mr Ahern said the idea of a North-South referendum on the Belfast Agreement had been Mr Hume’s idea, not his.

“The idea, which I think was a mastermind... was to put it very quickly to a vote North and South on the same day,” he said.

“He told me to float it and get [Tony] Blair on side,” he said.

“This was on the basis that the last all-island vote was in 1918, which was perceived to have legitimised the armed struggle,” Mr Ahern explained.

“John Hume’s idea was to ‘get past that’ and he was “100 per cent right”, Mr Ahern said.

Prof Paul Arthur, who grew up close to the Humes in Derry and was part of the civil rights movement, said his politics were to the left of Mr Hume initially.

“He changed my whole view of what politics was about,” Prof Arthur said, recalling a trip to the US where a former Republican of the US House of Representatives, Charlie Dougherty, had been instrumental in elevating the Northern issue to a cross-Congressional level.

Quiet diplomacy

“I began to see this was a different way of doing politics... personal conversation and quiet diplomacy,” Prof Arthur said.

He said the role of former US president Jimmy Carter in 1977 was crucial, as was that of Senator Ted Kennedy, who praised the role of the Ulster Scots in the north American heritage.

“It was the first attempt to widen it, and out of that everything flowed,” Prof Arthur said.