The Irish Times view on John Hume: He stayed the course of peace

Former SDLP leader showed us we can work for justice without giving way to rage that robs us of our humanity

John Hume speaks to a British army soldier during an anti-internment rally in Derry in 1972. Photograph: Jimmy McCormack

John Hume speaks to a British army soldier during an anti-internment rally in Derry in 1972. Photograph: Jimmy McCormack

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In 1963, when John Hume was making his mark as a young community activist in Derry, Martin Luther King gave his great “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. King, leader of the civil rights movement that would do so much to inspire Catholics in Northern Ireland to rise up against decades of institutionalised discrimination, warned against allowing righteous anger at injustice to boil over into cruelty: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.”

Hume’s greatness is that he lived by those words and remained, often under terrible pressure and provocation, true to them. In 1964, in his first piece for The Irish Times, he wrote of political life in Northern Ireland that “Leadership has been the comfortable leadership of flags and slogans. Easy, no doubt, but irresponsible.” In the Troubles that followed within a few years, the leadership of flags and slogans gradually became the leadership of violence. The cup of bitterness and hatred was passed around on all sides. But Hume stayed on the high plane of human dignity. He chose the hard leadership of taking responsibility for trying to build a decent consensus in a divided society.

In the relentless rewriting of the history of the Troubles, we are told that Catholics in the North had only two options. They could lie down and submit to a second-class citizenship. Or they could seek to slaughter their way to freedom and equality. Hume, like Dr King and Mahatma Gandhi before him, knew that this was a false choice between two evils. Change could be made by collective protest, by political organisation, by making and sustaining international alliances, by using fluent language and keen analysis to alter perceptions. History proved him right. The change that came in the Belfast Agreement of 1998 owed far more to his persistence, to his courage and to his thinking than it did to any bullet or bomb.

He transformed Irish nationalism by making it about people, not territory

In the long, desperate decades of repetitive violence, Hume himself often seemed repetitive. He was easily mocked for giving his “single transferable speech”. He kept saying the same things, kept using the same phrases: you can’t eat a flag; it is better to spill sweat than blood; it was people who were divided, not the land; an agreed Ireland is more important than a united Ireland; who is afraid of peace? In the darkest days, when he seemed close to being broken by it all, these phrases seemed merely like ways of filling the silence, substitutes for a cry of anguish.

But he was right to persist for eventually these phrases began to echo back to him from the mouths of people who had tried to belittle and undermine him. When all the answers to the Irish question were mutually and bitterly exclusive, it was Hume who changed the question. He transformed Irish nationalism by making it about people, not territory, by forcing its adherents to think, not about what they would die for but what – and who – they were prepared to live with. His ideas live after him in the Belfast Agreement and in the radically altered articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution with their aspiration “in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions”. What was once dismissively called Humespeak is the now the language of a radically rethought Irish nationalism that seems, in our present world, all the more civilised and decent.

Some of those who owe him most are among those least likely ever to give him the credit he deserves. It was Hume who took the terrible risk of reaching down into the deep moral abyss that Sinn Féin and the IRA had dug for themselves. He took hold of the hands that had so much blood on them and pulled them up into constructive politics, knowing full well that they would most probably come to replace his own party as the leading voice of nationalism in the North. He was by no means alone in doing this, but he took the lead and without him it is hard to imagine that the peace process would have been possible.

He kept hope alive in times of desolation and he kept people alive who would otherwise have perished in a pointless conflict. He showed us that we do not have to be either victims or perpetrators, that we can work for justice without giving way to the rage that robs us of our humanity. He proved that articulate speech is in the end both more eloquent and more effective than the deafening roar of the gun. There is no glamour in that – persistent decency has none of the dark allure of violence. But John Hume has left us with something much deeper than glamour: the honour of being his contemporaries and of living on an island that is far better for his life and work. To adapt the words of Jonathan Swift, this nation he has left his debtor; we wish it soon may have a better.

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