It was John Hume, not Sinn Fein, who steered Northern Ireland to peace

Sinn Fein and the DUP have squeezed the hope out of long-suffering people. They should remember Hume’s vision for partnership

A documentary film that premiered in Ireland at the weekend examines the role of the Nobel laureate and former SDLP leader John Hume in seeking to engage the United States in the Northern Ireland peace process.

I was very reluctant to see In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America, and even more reluctant to write about it. My fears were based on previous films about Ireland, which reeked of sentimentality, “old sod” songs and stories, and the dreaded “shamrockery” associated with Ireland in the US. But here we see how skilled practitioners of the art of politics can clearly define their objectives and remain aloof from all distractions that would essentially weaken their resolve.

The central question for many will be why Hume had to go to seek out the assistance of those in the United States who wielded power. Knowing Hume as I do, it was not to curry personal favour, or to enjoy the pleasure of American hospitality. Quite simply, there was nowhere else to go. The Irish government was beginning to exert pressure on the British government to create a lasting solution. But put crudely, Britain was very reluctant to challenge the unionist veto that had brought Northern Ireland to the brink of civil war. The only place from where that pressure could come was from the US.

But first Hume had to convince US political leaders to exert the kind of pressure that might distort their longstanding relationship with Britain. The remit he gave himself, and the message he gave to political America, was based on the core goal in an SDLP policy document called New Ireland: “To bring about a solution where Irish people of different traditions can build institutions of government to provide for lasting peace and stability on this island, and for new harmonious relations with Britain itself.”


That simple paragraph became a lifetime’s work for us all. Presidents Carter, Reagan and Clinton, with Tip O’Neill, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, responded to his call. Margaret Thatcher confirmed after the implementation of the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985, that the Americans had forced her to do it.

The fallout from Hume’s unremitting efforts could be seen in the Sunningdale agreement of 1973, and the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement. For the first time, the British government agreed to a role for the Irish government in a search for a solution. Equally fundamental was that for the first time the unionist veto on Northern Ireland affairs was broken. This was ground-breaking. For four centuries, every edict had been framed to ensure a unionist majority, and each one failed. A new ball game had begun.

The President Carter initiative - the All Ireland Fund - created jobs in deprived areas; fair employment legislation followed, as did a new dispensation of policing. Hume, however, could not have succeeded had it not been for the Irish government and its determined officials. After decades of dormancy, a new creative approach in Washington and London attracted interest and, ultimately, support from senior influential people: O’Neill and Ted Kennedywere joined by Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Hugh Careyto pursue the end of violence and lasting peace on this island.

The Hume-Kennedy axis and an Irish government committed to peace and justice was a powerful team, and a potent symbol of the creation of a new Ireland. The bitter irony of course is that Sinn Fein, wet-nursed into the political process by Hume and Kennedy, has, together with the DUP, squeezed the hope for the future out of the long-suffering people of Northern Ireland in their self-indulgent standoff.

Each still believes that it can achieve absolute victory; what violence and sectarian hatred failed to deliver them is now being pursued through the political process that they have reduced to a zero-sum game. If one is up, the other must be down; if one is British, the other must be Irish; if one is Catholic, the other is Protestant. More topically, if one wishes to love the Irish language it must be accompanied by a quasi-language known as Ulster Scots. For them the future is always binary; it must always be either absolute victory or total defeat.

If they watch this film, they would do well to ponder the words of Hume: “Ireland is not a romantic dream; it is not a flag; it is 4.5 million people divided into two powerful traditions. The solution will be found not on the basis of victory for either, but on the basis of agreement and a partnership between both. The real division of Ireland is not a line drawn on the map but in the minds and hearts of its people.”

Early in the film, a shot of Westminster Square focuses on the statue of Winston Churchill. It is a close-up of his back silhouetted against the House of Commons. The final image in this film is of Hume walking away from the camera slowly along the seafront. It is also shot from behind and focused on his back. There must surely be a message in that. – Guardian

Seamus Mallon was deputy leader of the SDLP from 1979 to 2001, and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland from 1998 to 2001.

In the Name of Peace is directed by Maurice Fitzpatrick, who is also the author of the accompanying book John Hume in America: From Derry to DC, published by Irish Academic Press