Political colossus, tetchy colleague, or a nationalist who simply didn't 'get' unionists... three Telegraph writers consider the late SDLP leader's legacy.
At 3.45pm on December 8, 1973, Catholic greengrocer James Gibson was shot dead outside his shop on the Stranmillis Road in Belfast by two UDA/UFF gunmen. The renowned poet Michael Longley wrote a poem about Mr Gibson:
He ran a good shop, and he died
Serving even the death-dealers
Who found him busy as usual
Behind the counter, organised,
With holly wreaths for Christmas,
Fir trees on the pavement outside.
Astrologers, The Three Wise Men,
Who shortly may be setting out
For a small house up the Shankill
Or the Falls, will pause on their way
At Jim Gibson's shop to buy gifts
Dates, and chestnuts and tangerines.
Jim Gibson was the 975th person to die as a result of "the Troubles".
A day after Jim's death, the Sunningdale Agreement was signed by the British Prime Minister, Ted Heath, Taoiseach Liam Cosgrove and representatives of the Ulster Unionist, SDLP, and Alliance parties.
For the republican movement, committed to nothing short of a united Ireland, and to extreme loyalists, whose ethos was "Not an Inch", Sunningdale was a sell-out, a compromise too far.
Yet, for the first time since the foundation of Northern Ireland, the Six Counties, the north, et al, both communities would have an input into the running of their everyday affairs.
A pivotal figure to that agreement was John Hume, who had been the intellectual giant behind a SDLP policy paper drawn up in January 1972, which advocated, among other things, a power-sharing Executive and a Council of Ireland. Hume took up the portfolio of Minister of Commerce in the new Executive.
At 12.15am on April 7, 1998, Trevor Deeney was shot dead outside his home after returning from work in a car parts factory in the village of Campsie in Co Derry. He was shot dead by the INLA, who claimed that he was a leading member of the LVF, a claim which Trevor's family strongly denied.
Trevor was the 3,588th person to die as a result of the Troubles.
Three days after Trevor's death, the Good Friday Agreement was signed by the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and representatives from the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP, Sinn Fein, Alliance Party, Women's Coalition, PUP (representing the UVF) and UDP (representing the UDA).
Central to the Good Friday Agreement was a power-sharing Executive and an Irish dimension under the title of the North/South Ministerial Council. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
People can eulogise about John Hume until the ice-caps melt, which won't be that long, but he was, at heart, a political rottweiler.
Ever since the outset of the conflict, he and the SDLP asserted that the strategy of armed struggle was flawed and was doomed to failure. In the terrible days of internment and Bloody Sunday, when the value of life in nationalist areas dropped into negative equity, when people's backs were to the wall, Hume's and the SDLP's message of compromise was one that many nationalists and republicans found obnoxious.
Things got darker. Hume's persuasiveness became a real problem for activists on both sides of the political spectrum, with some contemplating his assassination.
I suspect that Hume knew this but, if he did, it didn't matter: a rottweiler never lets go.
The soaring death-count, war-weariness, the realisation that outright victory was unachievable and the prospect of republicans becoming involved in the political process led to secret talks between the leadership of the republican movement and the Irish and British governments in the mid-1980s.
Hume joined this process with the rolling-out of the Hume-Adams talks in the early 1990s. When those talks were exposed in the Press, Hume was fiercely unapologetic, saying that he didn't give "two balls of roasted snow" what his detractors thought of him; come what may, he would continue to talk to Adams in order to achieve peace.
Was Hume aware that Adams had already reached the conclusion that further armed struggle was futile and that he was looking for an escape route out of the dungeon of war? Of course, he was. But it didn't matter to the Derryman.
Eventually, he was able to convince Adams that there was an alternative to armed struggle.
We all owe John Hume, big time. He had been the predominant figure in both the Sunningdale and the Good Friday agreements. Both had been his brainchildren vis-a-vis the January 1972 SDLP paper, which became the skeleton of the two agreements.
And, lest we forget, in between the slayings of Jim Gibson, on December 8, 1973, and Trevor Deeney, on April 7, 1998, another 2,613 people died in our Troubles.
I don't think any more needs to be said; the figures and the dead speak for themselves.
Richard O'Rawe's debut novel, Northern Heist, is published by Merrion Press, priced £12.99
John Hume's primary strength was beginning his political career as a genuine next-generation nationalist. He had no time for the political and ideological laziness of Eddie McAteer and the Nationalist Party, twiddling its thumbs on Stormont's backbenches (he defeated McAteer in the 1969 Stormont election in the old Foyle seat). He had no time for a unionism which still seemed determined to treat Catholics as second-class citizens. And he had no time for the IRA, or any other terrorist group. His weapons of choice were his voice and a message (wrapped in the treasured single transferable speech), which never changed.
While he never hid his desire for a united Ireland - indeed, he wasn't even prepared to put the issue on the back-burner while other political/societal problems were resolved - he was ferocious in his condemnation of the IRA's campaign and those who sought to justify it.
His own campaign consisted of bending some of the most influential political, governmental and media ears in London, Dublin, Brussels and Washington, DC. And he did it at a time when unionism, convinced its majority was secure, didn't set any store by glad-handing and propaganda.
What unionism didn't realise, until it was much too late, was the sheer scale of Hume's influence. His fingerprints are all over the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985), Downing Street Declaration (1993) and, of course, the Good Friday Agreement (1998).
Key elements of his single transferable speech (co-operation, agreed, new, together, peace and learning the lessons from the past were repeated and amplified in the speeches of presidents, prime ministers and taoisigh. Hume’s narrative and direction steered and shaped the policies of successive British and Irish governments, usually with key nods of approval from the White House.
I remember former UUP leader Jim Molyneaux telling me that Hume never got, never understood and probably had no great interest in unionism. I think that’s a fair assessment.
When he succeeded Gerry Fitt as SDLP leader in 1979, there was a noticeable greening in the party’s outlook. It might have had something to do with the destruction of Sunningdale by the United Ulster Unionist Council in 1974 and the failure to reboot serious new talks.
It might have been the close relationship between Molyneaux and Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Or it might have been the UUP’s disinterest in devolution (Molyneaux and his mentor, Enoch Powell, favoured an ersatz form of integration).
Whatever the specific reason may have been, it was fairly clear that Hume wasn’t all that interested in investing either time or energy in building a relationship with unionism.
Instead, he channelled his formidable energy and intellect into bridge-building and ear-bending elsewhere, mostly outside Northern Ireland.
I think that explains the anger directed at him after the publication of the Anglo-Irish Agreement; a very palpable belief across unionism that he had brought London and Dublin together to undermine the Union.
That anger exploded again a few years later, when it emerged that Hume had engaged in talks with Gerry Adams, one of the objectives being to “persuade Sinn Fein of British neutrality since the Anglo-Irish Agreement”. While Hume claimed not to care “two balls of roasted snow” about the criticism of his talks with Adams, it certainly fuelled unionist concerns that he was more interested in a deal that prioritised pan-nationalist interests rather than cross-community co-operation.
My own sense is that Hume believed successive British governments had long accepted that a military defeat of the IRA was less important than a political deal which gave Sinn Fein and the IRA a reasonably easy route into a talks process and maybe even into a devolved administration.
But my other sense is that Hume was “played” by Adams. Played so skilfully and so ruthlessly that it was the SDLP which took massive electoral damage and paved the way for a DUP/Sinn Fein deal in 2007, which undermined the hope and optimism of the original 1998 agreement.
The last time I met him was at an event in 2004/5. I had written an article a few days earlier in which I’d argued that the sidelining of the UUP/SDLP by the British and Irish governments after the 2003 Assembly election (in which they were finally eclipsed by the DUP/Sinn Fein) would probably result in renewed polarity at the centre of politics.
At the end of the event, he came over, tapped me on the shoulder and said: “I read your piece. I hope you’re wrong. Maybe they will learn from what we’ve left them.”
That Hume made a huge difference — most of it for the better — is undeniable. That he never wavered in his opposition to violence is undeniable. That a peace agreement was always his focus is undeniable. He was a good man.
Because of his illness, we never knew what he made of the DUP/Sinn Fein spats and “ourselves separately” approach to the Executive.
Somehow, though, I can’t imagine that what we have now is what he had in mind when he delivered the first version of the single transferable speech.
Alex Kane is a writer and commentator
John Hume, Paddy O’Hanlon and Seamus Mallon were revered political names in our household. But John Hume’s name was familiar to me for other reasons.
While still at the Abbey, I joined a junior board of my local credit union. John’s name was synonymous with the credit union. Like him, I marvelled at the potential of this organisation to lift people from poverty and give them dignity in their financial affairs.
Newry Credit Union was founded in 1963 after some locals went to hear John Hume speak in Armagh. They never tired of repeating the importance of Hume’s role in establishing the credit union across Northern Ireland. Hume was an evangelist for the movement.
Through my involvement, I met Hume in Dublin, along with two of the founders of the Irish credit union movement, the late Seamus McEoin and Sean Forde. The two older men were clearly in awe of their former president. I was equally star-struck, as Hume was our MEP.
Unknown to me, a passion for the credit union was not the only interest I would share with John Hume.
In 1982, I left to study for the priesthood. Leaving my unpolished halo in Cork, I ended up at Jordanstown. On November 4, 1983, an IRA bomb at the campus killed three young policemen. The event shook me to the core.
As a student, I wrote to this paper. When the letter was printed, I had naively allowed my address to be included. I got responses from everywhere — some threatening, but mostly supportive.
One letter came from the-then SDLP general secretary, Eamon Hanna, who supplied copies of speeches by John Hume. He also invited me to attend a forthcoming SDLP conference. The conference was underwhelming, but in the evening Hume and Mallon held court with their respective devotees. I was hooked.
Hume led a sing-song — the first of many I would endure. He didn’t look like a political grandee and his appearance was unkempt; more university don than political dynamo. But, boy, could he talk.
A few years later, I came across Hume staring into the bonnet of his car in Belfast. I ran to a telephone kiosk and phoned for a mechanic. The battery was kaput.
I can’t remember if John had no wallet, or only francs, but the mechanic was in no mood to give credit, or work out exchange rates — even for the legendary John Hume. So, I bought a replacement battery.
Weeks later, I got card and a refund from Pat Hume — thanking me for being a Good Samaritan. (Ironically, the Good Samaritan was the gospel chosen for John’s Requiem Mass).
It struck me then just how little Hume was interested in materialistic, or even mundane, matters.
He was 24/7 always 100% consumed with the “bigger picture”. Working for Seamus Mallon, I got to see more of John Hume, especially at Westminster. In those days, parliamentary debates went on throughout the night.
I was amazed at the capability of Hume to nip in and out of House of Commons to speak and still be up to catch a red-eye to Brussels, or Washington DC. He epitomised burning the candle at both ends. It seems surreal now, but with John and Seamus, you could find yourself dining in the legendary Langan’s brasserie, among London’s glitterati, one night and the next grabbing a fish supper before going back to the less-than-glamorous Irish Club, or Tara Hotel. Was there tension at times? Naturally. But people often forget that the civil rights leadership of Hume, Mallon, Austin Currie, O’Hanlon and others were among the most talented, not just of their generation, but also in generations.
Any one of them could have led the SDLP in their own right. But only Hume had the vision and the self-belief to seize it.
Working with the Democratic Party, I realised just how much influence John Hume had in the USA. He convinced the entire American political establishment to back his blueprint for peace.
John could be tetchy and didn’t like being challenged — even by colleagues. Frustratingly, he was not as good at internal communication as he was externally.
But his civil rights record bought him street credibility. His genius granted him political gravitas.
I was sceptical over the nature of the conduct of the Hume-Adams process, but I never once doubted Hume’s sincerity, or commitment to taking the gun out of Irish politics.
He told me and others: “If, by talking, even a single life was saved, then it was worth trying”. He was right.
John Hume had flaws, but he also had an unparalleled greatness. He had a destiny which he fulfilled.
Much of the credit for John’s political success belongs to his wife, Pat, a truly remarkable lady. As the priest said at the funeral, when history is written, Pat Hume’s name should stand alongside that of her husband.
Next week is my birthday, but I still see John Hume through the eyes of the optimistic 17-year-old me, who once met a man in Dublin who literally changed Ireland for the better.
Tom Kelly is a political commentator and writer