Mary McAleese: John Hume would know only fools rush in to a Border poll

That the North can seamlessy re-enter EU has changed the debate on Irish unity

John Hume on the Walls of Derry, spring 1998. Photograph: Pacemaker

John Hume on the Walls of Derry, spring 1998. Photograph: Pacemaker

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John Hume’s illness in the years before his death meant he was unaware of Brexit, but had he been, he would surely have been as keenly aware of the collateral damage it could inflict on the Belfast Agreement and the peace process. We who had so long benefited from his towering presence have been left bereft in these times by his towering absence.

Now is the time to remember who he was, what he did, why he did it, what we owe him and how we can continue to be the hands, hearts and minds of his work. First and foremost, Hume was a parliamentarian who used the European Parliament and Westminster to stand his ground, make his case and win support for his vision. The Northern Ireland Assembly is part of that vision, and every effort must be made through dialogue and consensus to see that it continues, stabilises and realises the promise and principles of the Belfast Agreement. John was a brilliant networker, forging allies in the United States, Europe, Britain and Ireland by the sheer force and integrity of his vision.

Mary McAleese shakes hands with Mr John Hume at the SDLP 25th annual dinner in the Burlington Hotel, Dublin, 1997. Photograph: David Sleator
Mary McAleese shakes hands with Mr John Hume at the SDLP 25th annual dinner in the Burlington Hotel, Dublin, 1997. Photograph: David Sleator

While the presidency of Joe Biden promises a renewal of the massively successful efforts of American administrations – most notably under Bill Clinton – Brexit has altered one of the main pillars John rightly saw as essential to the peace process. It has set a future agenda very different to the one envisioned by the Belfast Agreement.

One of Hume’s great achievements was persuading Irish nationalists and republicans to consent to the position of Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom in return for the provision in the agreement that allows for the possibility of reunification of Ireland by consent if the people of Northern Ireland vote in favour of it by referendum.

Until Brexit, the debate on reunification of the island of Ireland conventionally focused on the crude numbers of Catholics and Protestants and the demographic changes that will in a relatively short time give Northern Ireland’s Catholics a voting majority for the first time since partition. It has in some quarters been presented as a righting of old wrongs, with an unhealthy focus on the past. Now such a debate has the potential to focus on the future and the construction through dialogue and consensus of the best way forward for the relationship between the two parts of the island of Ireland and their neighbour Britain.

If John Hume were alive today, he would be warning us that the preparation for a future watershed referendum needs powerful objective analysis of all the issues raised by an ending of partition

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum in Britain in 2016, the then taoiseach, Enda Kenny, secured the agreement of the EU that if in the future, under the terms of the Belfast Agreement and the Irish Constitution, the partition of Ireland was ended, then the North would seamlessly re-enter the EU. This is an important new element in the Irish unity debate, given the strength of cross-community support in Northern Ireland for remaining in the EU and for liberal social policies more consonant with European values. Much that was taken for granted a few years ago can no longer be taken for granted.

The Brexit debacle was a sobering lesson in how not to approach a referendum, and if John Hume were alive today, he would be warning us, as the man who painstakingly planned and honed the shape of the Belfast Agreement over many years of difficult negotiations, that the preparation for a future watershed referendum needs powerful objective analysis of all the issues raised by an ending of partition, from fears over identity to governance and representation, from flags and emblems to the island’s relationship with Britain, and from economics to esoterics. He would be pleased to see the army of scholars and new institutions that is mustering to provide the acreage of careful analysis that will be required.

We all inherited this mess; we did not create it. We try to build bridges to each other and to a better future

The British plantation and partition of Ireland were not noble undertakings. They cast long, long ominous shadows into the centuries ahead. No one foresaw or cared about the human consequences. We live with them. We all inherited this mess; we did not create it. We try to build bridges to each other and to a better future.

That we have almost a quarter of a century of a working international peace agreement that has transformed relationships on the island of Ireland and between Ireland and the UK is thanks to many hearts and hands, but standing tall among them all is the John Hume, Irishman, European, politician and pastor, whose deep personal faith in a loving creator of all humanity expressed itself not in theological preaching or Bible-thumping but in the simple principles of equality of citizenship, respect, tolerance, partnership and the mutual development of common economic interests.

He lived and died believing, as I do, that “the European Union stands as the most vibrant testimony to the ideal that we are all better working with each other and for each other. Put simply, the European Union is the single most potent symbol of conflict resolution in our history”.

This article is based on Mary McAleese’s opening address to the Hume Inaugural European Conference 2021 organised by the John & Pat Hume Foundation

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