Martin Mansergh: John Hume ensured the emancipation of Catholics in the North

Hume skilfully avoided becoming embroiled in partisan politics in Republic or US

Nobel Peace Prize winner and SDLP leader John Hume arrives at the Guild Hall, Derry, on January 21st, 2002, to give evidence at the Bloody Sunday tribunal into the 1972 civil rights march in which 14 civilians were shot dead by British paratroopers. File photograph: Peter Morrison/AP Photo

In 1925, the Free State's minister for justice Kevin O'Higgins complained to the British that, since partition, Catholic nationalists in the North were living in the same conditions of Catholics prior to Catholic emancipation. John Hume, whose politics embodied the ideals of the civil rights movement, made the biggest contribution to their renewed emancipation.

Hume was always fertile in ideas for political transformation. He helped found the SDLP in 1970, different from the old Nationalist Party and from militant republicanism. It provided an indispensable partner for Irish governments. Rapid political gains in the early 1970s were not sustained. Hume held office, all too briefly, in the 1974 powersharing Executive.


It took another quarter century before an adapted Sunningdale model could be reinstated in the Belfast Agreement. Hume was indefatigable in advocating a shared solution as opposed to a majoritarian one, either unionist or republican. His life was spent shuttling between Derry, Dublin, London, European institution capitals, and Washington.

Party colleagues kept the home fires burning. Hume believed in hammering home key principles rather than continually devising novel ones. He championed a cause around which sympathetic governments, parliamentarians, civil servants, businessmen, community leaders and clergy could rally. He skilfully avoided becoming embroiled in partisan politics, in the Republic or the US, so that he could engage the interest of all parties. With the Irish Embassy in Washington, he worked with the Friends of Ireland in Congress as a counterweight to Irish-American republican support groups, and helped persuade president Jimmy Carter in 1977 to pledge financial aid for a settlement.


For much of his career spanning the Troubles, Hume faced resistance on three fronts to his peaceful efforts to create an agreed Ireland, incorporating a shared Northern Ireland. There was prolonged unionist political resistance, violent loyalist and republican sabotage, and, until 1997, apart from occasional and important breaks, a mostly unreceptive British government. Hume and his party had the unenviable task of trying to pick up the pieces after the collapse of the Sunningdale Agreement, against a background of intense violence.

He and his party were the first to insist that the two sovereign governments come together and establish an overarching framework, which was the basis of the 1980-81 Anglo-Irish initiative and then the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. Hume was determined not to be dragged backwards. In 1982, SDLP opposition crystallised to the (Northern secretary) James Prior’s rolling devolution initiative, which did not guarantee powersharing and contained no Irish dimension.

New Ireland Forum

Later that year, boycotting participation in the Prior Assembly, he sponsored the setting-up of the New Ireland Forum in 1983-84. Hume and the SDLP played a central role in modernising Irish nationalism, which fully recognised the existence and validity of two traditions on the island.

The SDLP came under increasing pressure in the 1980s, when following the hunger strikers’ electoral victories, Sinn Féin began contesting elections, and rapidly gained a third of the nationalist vote.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement, with its hint at joint authority, rescued the SDLP from political limbo, and gave it access to government through the Joint Secretariat in Belfast, to which unionists deeply objected. Hume and his party were the big winners, and the unionist veto on all change, not just constitutional change, was broken. They were also able to fend off Sinn Féin, while IRA violence continued.

While Garret FitzGerald saw the agreement as an incentive for unionists to share power and restore devolution, Hume had other, more ambitious ideas.

His goal was to persuade republicans to end violence and embrace politics. Alone among constitutional politicians, he had the moral authority to lead his party publicly in dialogue with Sinn Féin and later personally with Gerry Adams.

What he was attempting was brave, dangerous and controversial. The constitutional path to Irish unity was open, and the essence of his position was contained in a phrase he contributed to the Downing Street Declaration: “Irish unity would be achieved only by those who favour this outcome persuading those who do not, peacefully and without coercion or violence”.

After the ceasefires, final vindication came in 1998 with the Belfast Agreement ratified in referendums North and South, as originally suggested by Hume. An unforgettable moment at 3am on Good Friday was Hume and colleagues bursting into the Irish government delegation room, embracing everyone in sight.

Agreement had been reached with Ulster Unionists on powersharing. In recognition of a historic mission accomplished, John Hume received, with David Trimble, the Nobel Peace Prize.

Despite multiple difficulties, the peace process worked. For Hume, the party was a means, not an end. The SDLP’s long-term course proved the right one, even if electorally not the most rewarding.

Martin Mansergh is a former government adviser and member of the Irish negotiating team for the Belfast Agreement