How a Nearly Forgotten Man from Derry Forged Peace in Ireland

John Hume, whose legacy was nearly lost after he succumbed to dementia, realized that in order to improve conditions in his hometown, he would have to change the world

How a Nearly Forgotten Man from Derry Forged Peace in Ireland
A mourner holds an order of service at John Hume’s funeral on August 5, 2020/Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images.

Thomas O’Neill Jr. was one of the towering figures of 20th century American politics. Better known as Tip, he took John F. Kennedy’s seat in the House of Representatives when Kennedy went to the Senate, and he rose to become House Speaker in 1977. Boston Irish to the core, O’Neill was thwarted in his domestic political ambitions by the arrival in the White House of Ronald Reagan. But some 3,000 miles away, and in league with Reagan, he was a player in one of the most remarkable political transformations in recent history.

“All politics is local,” he famously said. And Ireland was local to him. O’Neill used all his guile and intimate knowledge of the dark arts of congressional politics to bring together a powerful coalition of Irish-American politicians. It was so powerful that even today Congress has threatened to withhold support for a trade agreement with the UK if Brexit threatens the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that brought political violence in Ireland to an end.

Alongside O’Neill stood Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan; New York Gov. Hugh Carey, governor of New York; and the youngest of the Kennedy brothers, Ted. They were known as the “four horsemen,” but someone else was holding the reins.

That man was John Hume, who, for three decades, was the undisputed leader of constitutional nationalism in Ireland.

If anyone can be seen as the architect of peace in Ireland, it is Hume; a tireless networker, he was prepared to sacrifice his own political credibility, and the future of his party, for what he saw as a greater cause.

Yet, when he died in August, in a care home that specialized in looking after patients with dementia, he had been forgotten by all but his loving family and close friends. The caravan had moved on. Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), was now the voice of northern nationalists, and it was in government. Hell-bent on rewriting history, Sinn Féin portrays its then leader Gerry Adams, and his deputy Martin McGuinness, as the true authors of the Good Friday Agreement.

Although garlanded with awards – the Nobel, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King peace prizes, a papal knighthood in 2012, more than 40 honorary doctorates, and the Légion d’Honneur, among others – Hume had been forced off the stage by the creeping debility of dementia.

Such was Sinn Féin’s ascent at the ballot box post-agreement that the party Hume led for 22 years – the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) – was left struggling to be heard. Four leaders after Hume’s departure in 2001, his party is only now beginning to reassert itself – primarily because Sinn Féin has a record in government to be attacked.

It was said of Hume that he was the oak tree that kills everything in its shade. That is how it felt to many in the SDLP, though any criticism was whispered. While they adored him for his commitment to peace and social justice, remembered still his courageous fight for civil rights, and recognised his pivotal role in lifting people out of poverty through the Credit Union movement, they knew too that he was a solo player who – almost uniquely in modern politics – put country before party.

The downside to having Hume as your leader was knowing you were being kept in the dark.

He had a tightly-knit court: Mark Durkan, who succeeded him as leader; Denis Haughey, his full-time assistant; and, to a lesser degree, the academic-turned politician, Sean Farren. Closest to him of all was his wife Pat – like many political wives, overlooked. Without her guidance and support, he could not have functioned. She picked up the pieces of his disorganized life.

Hume profoundly distrusted the Belfast wing of his party, and he rarely confided in his colleagues – including his long-serving deputy Seamus Mallon.

His decision to open communications with the IRA and Sinn Féin was a slap in the face for party members involved in daily skirmishes with Republican activists as they competed for the same constituents. In spite of their common pursuit of Irish unity, the SDLP and Sinn Féin regarded one another as the enemy within. Sinn Féin was determined not only to destroy the British state, but to destroy the SDLP, too. It nearly succeeded.

The Conservative and Unionist politician Enoch Powell, who from 1974 to 1987 represented the Northern Ireland constituency of South Down (benefiting from a split in the nationalist vote), once said: “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”

Being cut down by dementia can hardly be described as “a happy juncture.” But cut down and cut out Hume was.

There is irony in the realization that death has resurrected him. It has wiped away the dementia, and restored images of him in his prime: being manhandled by the British Army as he campaigned for civil rights, spread-eagled against a wall by armed police officers in riot gear, marching with his fellow citizens to secure basic human rights.

“Failure” is not how his career will be seen by future generations.

In death, lauded as the greatest Irishman since the Liberator Daniel O’Connell secured Catholic emancipation in 1829, there are proposals for a Hume statue, Hume bridges, and – what would be closest to his heart – the establishment of a John Hume Memorial University, funded by the Irish, British, and Northern Irish administrations, straddling the border he strove so hard to eradicate.

It is all too easy to reduce the situation in Northern Ireland to a binary choice between the British and the Irish, Unionists and nationalists, loyalists and Republicans, Protestants and Catholics, planter and Gael. There are two of everything: English and Irish languages; the Unionist News Letter, the nationalist Irish News; state schools (Protestant), maintained schools (Catholic); two names for one city, Londonderry and Derry; and two Primates of All Ireland (Anglican and Catholic) glaring at each other in Armagh from their respective cathedrals, each building named after Ireland’s patron saint, Patrick.

A superficial view of Hume would place him firmly within one of these traditions.

He was born to Catholic working-class parents in Derry in 1937. The city had been impoverished through deliberate neglect by the Unionist regime. Partition had cut it off from its hinterland in Donegal; and like many Catholic families in the city, the wage-earning burden fell on Hume’s mother, Anne.

The 1947 Education Act, which broadened access to secondary education, came at just the right time for him. The clever working-class boy was educated at St. Columb’s Catholic grammar school. (It has the distinction of producing two Nobel laureates, Hume and the poet Seamus Heaney.) He studied for the priesthood at Maynooth but left and became a teacher instead.

Hume, however, was not a typical Irish nationalist. Whether he could be called a nationalist at all is a moot point. He took from his father, Sam, the belief that “you can’t eat a flag.” His politics was about bread-and-butter issues, and his clarion call was that it was more important to unite people than territory.

Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds with Sinn Fein Leader Gerry Adams and John Hume /Getty Images/ New Lines.

The motivation for his involvement in politics, the civil rights movement, and his quest for a resolution of the so-called Irish question, owes little to a determination to see the political reunification of Ireland – though if that were to be the result, so be it. Hume was motivated, rather by a quest for social justice; and that quest had its roots in the city of his birth.

Hume’s career, which superficially operated at the level of global statesman, was unquestionably defined by O’Neill’s maxim, “All politics is local,” and Hume’s politics was the most local of all.

He cannot really be understood as a peacemaker, a political leader or a statesman, without his politics being viewed through the prism of Derry, in the words of the song “The Town I Loved So Well.” He came to realize that the answers to the burdens that crippled his city lay in changing the world around it.

To be an effective local politician, he had to straddle the world stage.

Hume came to prominence in the 1960s fighting three causes. The first was poverty, which he knew from personal experience robbed people of their dignity. He founded Derry Credit Union to do something about it, and throughout his life he promoted the credit union movement at every turn. It gave people who had nothing access to money, without which they had no opportunity to build a high quality of life for themselves and their families.

His second cause was civil rights. Although Derry had a natural nationalist majority, gerrymandering ensured Unionists controlled the council. There was widespread discrimination in employment and housing. The voting system favored people who owned property and businesses – “one man, one vote” became a central demand of the civil rights movement.

The third thing that galvanized him was the campaign to have Northern Ireland’s second university established in Derry. Like access to money, education was the route to a better life. Hume chaired a cross-community campaign to establish a university in the city, only to see it awarded to the Unionist town of Coleraine. That decision was a bitter blow to the city, and it continues to rankle today.

The younger Hume would have been happy to see these issues resolved within the framework of a shared vision for Northern Ireland, but the failure of unionism to accept that its one-party state was no longer viable – an intransigence exacerbated by its reaction to the Provisional IRA campaign that emerged concurrently with the battle for civil rights – forced him to think laterally.

In the Venn Diagram that describes the relationship between Britain and Ireland, Northern Ireland sits uncomfortably in the shared space between the overlapping circles.

Neither truly Irish nor fully British, it remains an embarrassment to both countries. There are politicians in the Irish Republic who think of northerners as uncouth relatives they’d rather not have about the place. On the other side of the Irish Sea, and for all British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s protestations that Northern Ireland was “as British as Finchley” (her constituency in London), few in Britain really see it that way. It doesn’t take long for an Ulster Protestant visiting “the mainland” to discover the natives there think of him as Irish.

While superficially a simple battle between two opposing forces, the Troubles were complicated by multiple feelings of victimhood and the consequent desire for revenge; begrudgery and pig-headedness; internecine turf wars within the warring factions; and finely calibrated ideological differences that meant you had to negotiate the way to peace with multiple factions. As the writer Brendan Behan once observed, the first item on any republican agenda was “the split.”

Dealing with Northern Ireland was less about bashing heads together and more like a game of 3-D chess. Only Hume could think in three dimensions.

Such was the tangled mess that neither the Oxbridge elite in successive British governments nor the architects of the Republic of Ireland’s economic miracle could find a way through.

Brute force and ignorance didn’t work, either. The British Army, deployed in 1969, was ill-equipped to deal with civilians, and it brutalised them; the Ulster Defence Regiment, raised locally largely from the Protestant community, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, an armed police force, were seen as unionism’s enforcers. Collusion between Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers, police officers, and loyalist paramilitaries totally undermined nationalist confidence in the rule of law, as did the covert operations of the security services and British special forces such as the SAS.

Northern Irish politics was dominated, therefore, by the dynamics of the latest atrocity: an assassination here, an indiscriminate bombing there, the slaughter of innocent men and women drinking in a pub. Every advance for peace was followed by an indecent retreat.

Hopes of a long-term solution disappeared in a fog of despair and a degree of acceptance by the populace that the situation would never change. One reaction to yet another bomb scare was typical of that. An audience in the Ulster Hall, told to leave because of a warning, refused to do so, checked under their seats, and satisfied there were no devices, settled down to listen to Beethoven.

A rare early moment of hope, the establishment of a power-sharing executive in 1974, with a Unionist chief executive in the form of Brian Faulkner (a hawk turned dove) and a nationalist deputy – the old-style socialist Gerry Fitt – lasted only five months before it was brought down by the Ulster Workers’ Strike, supported by loyalist paramilitaries.

 Those five months were the only time in his career that John Hume held office. He had been appointed Minister of Commerce. Although there were stages along the way – the Anglo-Irish Agreement, for one; it took the Hume-Adams talks and some staged political statements by the British and Irish governments to bring about the momentous first IRA cease-fire in 1994.

But getting there was not easy. Hume knew the solution was hiding in plain sight, but few others could see it.

The simple truth was that Northern Ireland couldn’t sort itself out. Rightly, as it turned out, Hume recognized that the solution lay in dealing with the fractured relationships at the governmental level – and, critically, by persuading the British government to unpick the damage done by its predecessors after the Irish War of Independence. The subsequent establishment of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland in the Government of Ireland Act in 1921 was an adhesive bandage,not a cure, for the “Irish problem.”

It may have taken until the mid-1990s to achieve results, but from the 1970s Hume was building the coalition that would get violent Republicans to lay down the Armalite and focus instead on politics to effect change. Critical was his relationship with the Irish government, and their combined efforts in Washington and Brussels helped change the debate.

In essence, he brought the weight of two world powers – America and the European Union – to bear on the British, persuading them to stand up to unionism. Hume could not have achieved what he did without the effective deployment of Irish soft power in the United States and Europe. The network of Irish embassies and consulates, and the access Ireland had to heads of government in Europe and successive presidents in the United States, was pivotal.

By the 1970s, Hume had established a close working relationship with up-and-coming civil servants in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin, including Michael Lillis, who later helped negotiate the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 which established an outpost for the Dublin government at Maryfield outside Belfast; and Sean Donlan, who became ambassador to the United States and later the department’s secretary general.

Working hand-in-glove with Foreign Affairs, Hume weaned Irish America off its love affair with Republicanism (the Irish version). This had been a green-tinted romance, fueled by dewy-eyed folk memories of the home country, too much Guinness, and recitations of rebel songs in Irish bars extolling the heroism of the old IRA and their fight against the British: songs like “The Rifles of the IRA,” “Come Out Ye Black and Tans,” and “A Nation Once Again.”

The Provisional IRA’s campaign, what the Irish euphemistically called “the Troubles,” as if it were a minor matter, was funded in part by money raised from Irish communities across the United States, though the extent of the bankrolling is still a matter of dispute.

That money was needed to buy guns and explosives, but almost as important to Republicans was the psychological boost provided by cheerleaders from across the pond: men like Michael Flannery, an “old IRA” man who founded Noraid, which raised money for Irish causes; lawyer Martin Galvin, a leading figure in Noraid who later parted company with Sinn Féin over the peace process; and Fr. Sean McManus, founder of the U.S. pressure group the Irish National Caucus, regarded by some as a humanitarian and peacemaker, and by the British as a troublesome priest and Republican apologist.

The “four horsemen” persuaded Reagan to pressure Thatcher to act on Ireland (the two leaderswere very close politically). This was critical in securing the Anglo-Irish Agreement that gave the Republic a foothold in the affairs of Northern Ireland for the first time – the so-called Irish dimension – and they emboldened Reagan’s successors, particularly Bill Clinton, to put peace in Ireland at the top of their agenda. The United States, which provided a chair for the peace talk, Sen. George Mitchell, is a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.

Simultaneously, Hume was working with the European Union.

Ireland and the United Kingdom had both joined the European Economic Community, as it was then, in 1973. EU membership transformed the Irish economy from an agrarian backwater with shocking levels of poverty into a self-confident and economically successful nation.

Hume, a former French teacher and committed Europhile, was elected to the European Parliament in 1979, holding his seat for 25 years. But it was not on the floor of Parliament that Hume made his mark. He worked his magic in the corridors of the European Commission, creating a quasi-foreign policy objective to get the British to live up their responsibilities in Ireland and, like the United States, to persuade Europe to underwrite the peace process.

Hume’s masterstroke was in recognizing that common membership of the European Union – which had eradicated borders across the continent through free trade and the free movement of people – transcended partition.

While Northern Ireland might still be in the United Kingdom, Britain and Ireland’s membership in the European Union had effectively negated the sovereignty issue. What was the point, he asked Republicans, in waging war over a border that in reality did not function as one? And he had one other trick up his sleeve: By engineering simultaneous referendums north and south of the border to approve the Good Friday Agreement, Hume could demonstrate to Republicans that the new settlement had the endorsement of the Irish people as a whole.

Hume’s legacy is a quarter-century of peace in Ireland, and counting. His dementia was beginning to show before the ink was dry on the Good Friday Agreement. His dream of uniting the different traditions of Ireland remains to be realized. There is a form of peace, but no reconciliation. The two parties that were his political enemies – Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party – are now in an uneasy coalition with each other. Politics has had more downs than ups, but they are still in the same room in Stormont.

Lucky perhaps for him, he was not fully aware of the wilful destruction of the European dimension with Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. The border is back in play in Ireland and, as history has demonstrated, it is more than an irritant; it is an existential threat to peace and stability.

While that threat remains unresolved, John Hume will not rest in peace; nor will those who are alive today because he took a risk and lifted the phone to the IRA.

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