John Hume: The mesmerising persuader the public rarely got to see

Conor O’Clery recalls how former SDLP leader could be equal parts hard going and entertaining

One sunny spring morning in Washington I picked up John Hume at the Georgetown mansion of Democratic Party fundraiser Elizabeth Bagley and her tobacco-baron husband Smith Bagley, where he frequently stayed on his visits to the US capital.

It was April 1995 and preparations were under way for an investment conference on Ireland to be held in Washington in May, hosted by US president Bill Clinton, to which every political party on the island of Ireland had been invited as part of the peace process.

That day, I was having a senior US government official to lunch in my house in Bethesda, and I had suggested to John that he join us.

On the 30-minute ride there he smoked several cigarettes and was his usual uncommunicative self. In my long association with the SDLP leader, reporting on and socialising with him in his various roles as Northern Ireland powersharing minister, MP at Westminster and envoy for constitutional nationalism in the US, I always found him a bit hard going.


Hume was ever the serious thinker, not given to frivolous small talk. He never had much inclination to indulge in introspection, nor did he revel in the insider anecdotes so beloved of other politicians and journalists.

However, over lunch that day, I witnessed a very different John Hume. It was as if he shifted from first to fourth gear in the presence of someone he needed to influence and convince.

I watched in some awe as he gave a brilliant dissertation on the peace process, on the significance of US involvement for trade, investment and peace in Ireland, and on his vision for a post-nationalist Ireland based on respect for diversity. I could see my guest was tremendously impressed.

There were other times when I saw this side of Hume, his facility to interact clearly and concisely, and convincingly, with people in power. The underlying message varied little. It was that “through our own efforts and the support of our friends, Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter will come together on our small island and at last the gun will have no role”.

Another such occasion was a small dinner party in the London home of diplomat Richard Ryan, at a time when there was a concerted Irish effort to cajole British politicians into supporting the Anglo-Irish Agreement, eventually signed in 1985. Hume mesmerised the guests, who included a scattering of MPs, among them British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, and cultural figures such as arts patron Garech Browne and the actor John Hurt. The party ended around the piano, with the Derry man taking the lead in song and recitation. This was another side of Hume the public rarely saw, the singer and entertainer; not only a persuader but a bit of an Irish tenor.

Brooding public self

The next day we had lunch in Langan’s Brasserie and, frustratingly for me, as a journalist looking for news, he reverted to his usual brooding public self, telling me little of what was going on behind the scenes, while indulging his tendency to claim credit for any positive developments. I was educated and enlightened by him rather than informed, and don’t recall, ever, getting a single worthwhile exclusive.

We only once had a serious falling out, in the mid-1990s, when I interpreted something he said in a way he disliked. He berated me on the telephone, then his wife Pat came on to say everything would be okay, it was just that he was very upset at the time over attacks on his integrity in the Sunday Independent. But whether in Dublin, London, Brussels or Washington, Hume excelled with his fellow politicians as a one-man think-tank and a propagandist for his new Ireland. His influence in Europe and in the US was profound.

Ted Kennedy first sought him out in the early days of the Troubles and the Massachusetts senator would later relate that Hume, no doubt slipping into rhetorical top gear, had had a profound influence on his thinking on the need to support peaceful change in Northern Ireland. Hume became a touchstone for interpreting Ireland for Kennedy, Tip O'Neill and other congressional heavyweights, and later Bill and Hillary Clinton. Nancy Soderberg of the US National Security Council in Clinton's White House, called him "a master" at political persuasion.

Dazzled by his lexicon of peace, and grateful to have a champion of non-violence whom they could support, they all came to see events in Ireland through Hume’s eyes. He laid the groundwork for the US to become an honest broker in resolving the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Barber-shop quartet

Bill Clinton wanted to make sure Hume was on board with any initiative he undertook. At his first St Patrick’s Day party in the White House, the president huddled with Hume, and later joined him, Albert Reynolds and Phil Coulter in a barber-shop quartet rendering of The Town I Loved so Well before a delighted celebrity-studded crowd.

Clinton held the SDLP leader in such high regard that his decision to issue Gerry Adams with a US visa in 1994 – a concession that helped lead to the IRA ceasefire – might very well not have happened without Hume’s (reluctant) nod to Ted Kennedy, who subsequently twisted Clinton’s arm.

That nod was an act of considerable self-sacrifice and perspicacity. It opened the American door to another talented political salesperson and persuader in the form of Adams and marked the beginning of the decline of Hume’s own star, and that of his party, but it jump-started serious negotiations leading to the Belfast Agreement.

In recent years, Hume has had to struggle with the demon of dementia. But glimpses can still be had of the master politician at work. He and I were both speakers at the Burren Law School in Co Clare in 2008. Already forgetful, Hume nevertheless delivered, with great passion, his single transferable speech on democratic politics that had convinced so many European and American leaders to embrace his logic on the Irish situation. It is part of his mental hard drive.

One of the points he made then was that with EU membership and the removal of British army road blocks, there is no longer a border on the island of Ireland “hard” enough to provide a pretext for armed struggle. I am sure Brexit filled him with foreboding.

One of the last times I encountered John, he was being awarded an honorary degree at a ceremony in Trinity College Dublin, along with Robert Redford and others. Perhaps discomfiting for the film star, it was Hume who got the longest applause and the only standing ovation, an expression of the high regard in which he is still held as Ireland’s great moral leader and persuader for peace during the time of the Troubles.

Conor O’Clery is a former Northern Editor, London Editor and Washington correspondent of The Irish Times