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Kathy Sheridan: Hume and Lewis cut from the same cloth

There is a trove of lessons there for the new crop of politicians who want to learn

While some of our politicians were using Dáil time, mid-pandemic, to indulge in tantrums and theatrics whilst affecting bafflement (we hope it was affected) over the public health implications of pubs with and without food, another long-serving politician was breathing his last.

He was John Lewis, US congressman and civil rights icon, who died in mid July. At 80, he was three years younger than John Hume.

Lewis, said Barack Obama, “loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise . . .And through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example”.

He could have been speaking about John Hume.


Oppression, discrimination, gerrymandering and state-sanctioned brutality were familiar territory to both Lewis and Hume. Both were apostles of peace but led from the front and caused what Lewis would call “good trouble, necessary trouble”.

John Lewis was only 23 when he addressed Americans from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. John Hume was in his mid-20s when he wrote ground-breaking articles in The Irish Times, breaching numerous codes by explaining why unity should only happen through consent. Better to spill sweat than blood . . . You can’t eat a flag. Clichés now, but clichés only because they are true. In latter years, he might have added, you can’t eat a blue passport.

Both men came from large, poor families. Hume was reared largely on his mother’s wages while Lewis was the son of sharecroppers. Both could be pugnacious, awkward and single-minded but were lucky in marriage.

Hume had Pat, a teacher, the breadwinner, political advisor and organiser who kept him going during the ups and downs of his career, a solid half of a political partnership who also ran his constituency office and reared five children.

Lewis had Lillian, a librarian and teacher, an extrovert with a political mind who could quote Martin Luther King’s speeches verbatim and became one of his closest political advisers.

Both Lewis and Hume had been religiously inclined. Hume was a seminarian in Maynooth for a few years – a mistake, he later admitted, but one that taught him logic and “stickability”, while Lewis was an ordained Baptist minister who stood for disciplined, Christian non-violence and believed that the movement for civil rights “was based on the simple truth of the Great Teacher: love thy neighbour as thyself”.

High-stakes risks

He believed in “aggressive, non-violent action”. He led marches against segregation, was beaten, spat upon, burned with cigarettes, tormented by white mobs and one day in Selma, Alabama, on what became known as Bloody Sunday, had his skull cracked by state-sanctioned law enforcers. That was seven years before the horror of Derry’s own Bloody Sunday.

Both Lewis and Hume stood up to violence and to those who vilified and opposed them from every part of Ireland, Britain and elsewhere, but – more challenging than that – they had to stand up to friends.

Their peaceful route entailed taking public high-stakes risks, a kind of self-sacrifice needed to break down the resistance. Lewis called it love. Hume called it changing the heart. He damned the masters of terror with common sense: “Bloodshed for political change prevents the only change that truly matters: in the human heart”.

It carried a cost. Following the London Docklands bombing by the IRA, Hume described feeling “chronic anxiety – anxiety about everything, especially when I wake up in the morning”.

Perhaps the most surprising fact about both Lewis and Hume is that they were career politicians, the only trade where experience is dismissed as a negative. Lewis represented the citizens of Georgia for more than 30 years and became known as the “conscience of the Congress”.

Hume, who could have turned his entrepreneurial, can-do skills to accumulating wealth, chose the hard campaign trails for Stormont, Westminster and the European Parliament. It was that trove of political experience, patience, persistence, positivity and expertise that equipped him to lead his country to this fragile peace.

Career politics gave those extraordinary men a platform, a network, resources, and a means of bringing about real, legislative change. In return, they demonstrated how practitioners can bring honour and lustre to politics with persistence, dignity, passion, tolerance and an ability to play the long game. They knew when to choose activism and when to choose restraint.

“Politics is not only about principles but the ability to put principles into practice. The second is as important as the first,” Hume once said when faced with an impossible political choice for his party.

There is a trove of lessons there for the new crop who want to learn.

A year ago, John Lewis tweeted : “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way #goodtrouble.”