The passing of John Hume is both Ireland and Britain's loss, writes his biographer Barry White
Having written that title, I’m not sure that I, or anyone else, knew John Hume.
He was a giant of his time, at home in any company and well worthy of his Nobel peace prize, but an enigmatic figure, who always kept his cards close to his chest. Not that he was unfriendly, or wary of speaking his mind on any topic, political or otherwise, but he thought more deeply than anyone, around the clock, about what ailed his beloved country and what he could do to heal it. In time, historians compared him to Daniel O’Connell, Ireland’s foremost non-violent reformer in the 19th century, and in recent years an RTE poll voted Hume as the greatest Irishman in history.
The first impression he made on me was in the early 1960s, as leader of the University for Derry campaign. Here he was, a mere history teacher among the experienced unionist ministers, exposing the weakness of their case against siting the second university in his majority Catholic city, in favour of their preferred Protestant Coleraine. Next time I saw him he had left teaching to manage Atlantic Harvest, the idea of a local businessman, Michael Canavan, to smoke and exploit locally the salmon that was traditionally exported to Britain.
Hume had been spotted as a future leader, from his pioneering Ireland-wide promotion of the Credit Union movement, providing an understanding bank for the masses, including himself. With a suitcase full of smoked salmon, he had hitched a lorry ride to Southampton, knowing that the ships of Cunard were a potential target. To nobody’s surprise, he came back with orders that helped secure a business that is still thriving. It was a job that suited his powers of persuasion, and he confided that if events had turned out differently, he could have seen himself as a supermarket manager.
But his true vocation came with the civil rights campaign in 1968, when revolutionaries like Eamonn McCann began the street protests, but lacked a more mainstream leader to broaden their appeal. Hume stepped forward, as if he had been born for the job, and I stood in wonder as he cooled a potentially calamitous confrontation between 15,000 marchers and a thin line of police with wise words and an ingenious proposal that the parade could successfully conclude the aborted October 5 march by walking on the pavements.
The government could no longer ignore the street protests, breaking out daily, and a host of unprecedented reforms were quickly enacted, appointing a development commission for Derry, introducing one man one vote in council elections and repealing the Special Powers Act, the bane of all nationalists.
Hume, like many moderates, was prepared to sit back and see how real were the changes, but the student revolutionaries, taking their lead from the Paris riots, wanted more. A march from Belfast to Derry was ambushed by loyalists at Burntollet and a subsequent murder and riots spelt the end of the non-violent rights movement and the rise of IRA and loyalist paramilitary involvement.
Meanwhile, as the media in Britain, Europe and America woke up to the conflicts in Northern Ireland, Hume was using his oratorical and language skills to win supporters worldwide. Soon, the major US networks and newspapers were beating a path to his door. Ted Kennedy spoke critically about the unionist government and as I watched a Dungiven Orange march an angry loyalist delivered a smart smack on the head to my NBC companion with the words “Take that for Mr Kennedy.”
Later, it was Ivan Cooper, a rare Protestant in the civil rights frontline, who described to me his admiration for Hume. “He’s the brave one, not me,” he said. “I have no fear when I’m at the head of a throng, but I can see what Hume is going through, with all that responsibility.”
He would have been a natural leader for the new party born out of the civil rights movement, the SDLP, but, to make sure working-class Belfast was involved, Gerry Fitt was chosen. Fitt’s earlier election in divided West Belfast was a warning of changed times and as an irrepressible Westminster MP he had won valuable support among Labour MPs, some of whom joined him at the October 5 march.
At his home in West End Terrace, overlooking the Bogside, he was the man the international media and diplomats had to see. And if he wasn’t there, he was in the US, persuading senior Democrats that there was a political alternative to IRA violence
But despite O’Neill’s belated reforms, the student leftists were not impressed, even if Hume lay low. Keep asking for more was their motto and the New Year march from Belfast to Derry, which I witnessed from a safe distance at Burntollet, heralded a disastrous year. Ethnic cleansing in west Belfast’s Bombay Street led to an IRA revival, the Army’s arrival and Hume’s next challenge, to stem the flow of dollars and guns from Irish America.
At his home in West End Terrace, overlooking the Bogside, he was the man the international media and diplomats had to see. And if he wasn’t there, he was in the US, persuading senior Democrats that there was a political alternative to IRA violence.
When Sunningdale agreement, in 1973, heralded the first attempt at power-sharing between the unionist and nationalist blocs, Hume had his first and last taste of running a department, as commerce minister. Before he had a chance to put his American contacts to use, however, loyalist working-class power turned off the lights, literally, and it was back to Westminster rule.
One St Patrick’s Day in the 1980s, I got a sense of how valuable he was to both Dublin and London when Garret FitzGerald arranged an Aer Lingus trip to the annual shenanigans in Washington. All doors were open to the guru from Derry, including a party in Georgetown where there was a Rembrandt over the fireplace and Ted Kennedy was at the door before deciding the house was too full for his entourage.
Later, I got a chance to hear from Kennedy’s own lips how much respect Hume commanded in the US capital. His name was enough to get me through the protocol all the way to the Senator’s relatively modest Virginia pad. Outside was a beaten-up old Chevrolet, which Kennedy told me he used to move about the city anonymously. On Northern Ireland, I was assured, nothing was said without running it past Hume and the Irish embassy, where an old friend of Hume, Sean Donlan, held court.
On the other side of the Irish question, in New York, I made my way by tube train to a clapboard house in Flatbush where a leading IRA gunrunner lived, a veteran of the civil war in the 1920s. I had to ask myself later, did he really say he admired Hitler for standing up to the British? Yes, he did.
For some time, I’d regarded Hume as the most strategic thinker in Ulster politics, who worked night and day to devise a new rights-based future for both unionists and nationalists. But what would he think about me, a journalist and columnist with the pro-Union, Protestant-owned Belfast Telegraph, writing the story of his life up to 1984, explaining his theories and filling in the gaps in his personal history to appeal to a wider audience?
I needn’t have worried. When we met again, at an SDLP conference, I made my pitch for his first biography and he agreed there and then. For the next few months, we travelled the highways and byways of Derry and Donegal, tape recorder running. When I noticed that he never used his seat belt, he explained that he owed his life to that habit. On a country road he had driven through a hedge and overturned the car. No one was around and without a belt he was able to climb out, shaken, but uninjured.
It was then that I came to realise how central to his being was his wish to find an answer to the Irish dichotomy, with its perpetually violent claims between the native Gaels and descendants of the 17th century Protestant Plantation. It had to be taken out of the narrow six-county context, he insisted, and had to be seen in three-dimensional terms, encompassing the competing claims of London, Dublin and Belfast.
There was another dimension, which the French speaker, historian and once-aspiring priest readily embraced, Europe. Just as he saw American influence as positive rather than negative, he regarded the experience of Britain and Ireland finding common cause in the European Community, as it then was, to be essential to healing old wounds.
With Stormont in abeyance since Bloody Sunday — which Hume tried to avert, fearing the worst — he threw his energies into the European project, becoming easily the most influential parliamentarian. To this day there are legacies of his lobbying for good causes and industrial investment that employees know nothing about.
I have seen this influence for myself on occasional jaunts to Brussels and Strasbourg, where walking the corridors with Hume meant constant interruptions to greet friends from every quarter elected and unelected. At briefings with him, you got used to major players like Jaques Delors dropping in for a chat.
In cafes the staff knew his favourite food and drink, never healthy, as well as his lack of ready cash. How he got through his busy schedule without the benefit of a watch I never knew, but his knowing friends protected him so well he was able to keep his mind focused on higher things. Although he was just one of three Northern Ireland MEPs, he had a special place in Dublin, London and Brussels relations, capable of working alongside Ian Paisley or Jim Nicholson to maximise their collective clout.
Relations with Paisley, whose counter-demonstrations arguably helped make the case for civil rights in the 1960s, as well as re-energising sectarianism, were guarded, but civil. “There were always two Paisleys and I learned to tell which I was dealing with, the open or closed,” he said. About Martin McGuinness, whose parents Hume knew and respected, he would only say, during the bad times, “I don’t know how he lives with himself.”
As part of his long game, Hume made a point of keeping in close touch with Dublin, even if some on the Left felt he might more profitably have used his influence in Westminster, where he was never at home. A high point was the 1983 New Ireland Forum, helping to concentrate minds on the realities of Irish unity, as opposed to the eternal dream. Its conclusion, that institutions should be established to give Dublin a pacifying role in Northern Ireland were instantly dismissed by Margaret Thatcher before eventually being accepted in the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement.
Like most people, I was unimpressed by Hume’s one-man negotiations with Gerry Adams, against a background of IRA mayhem, and I remember sharing my scepticism in a brief stop at his rented holiday farm house in south-west France. Pat made me and my wife, Joy, welcome, but there were some raised voices as we took a morning swim in the cattle’s plastic watering pool and drove to Maurice Hayes’s retreat nearby, overlooking the Gironde. Progress was being made, he assured me, just wait.
Maybe he started the slide that led to Sinn Fein overtaking the SDLP, and maybe this could have been minimised, but the end result of the Hume-Adams talks was the monumental 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Having played his part in the multi-party talks, minus DUP, he sprang one of his last surprises, handing over the deputy first leader’s task to old comrade Seamus Mallon, who sadly never gelled with David Trimble.
There was one more moment in the limelight, jointly receiving the Nobel peace prize with Trimble in Oslo, and he had surely earned a retirement giving lucrative lectures worldwide. It was not to be, however, when in Austria a sudden digestive disorder required emergency surgery. A mistake was made, his brain was deprived of oxygen and he never recovered all his faculties.
Most of his latter years have been spent at his beautiful seaside retreat near Greencastle, Donegal, close to his late friend playwright Brian Friel. There and in Derry, Pat — “my rock” — keeps his legacy alive, and I treasure a last visit we made to them both, complete with obligatory meal in Greencastle’s prized fish restaurant.
My wife Joy is a retired languages teacher, and John noticeably perked up at the chance to use his fluent French, such a bonus on TV and in the European Parliament. We worked through an Irish Times crossword before a walk was suggested and we took a leisurely stroll along the seashore to Moville.
Nearing the town, I saw three girls on a seat, smoking, and thought no more of it. Not John, however, who gave them a quiet teacherly talk about the evils of smoking, and what it had done to his family, not mentioning that he had been a 30-a-day man himself.
We retreated to his local and introduced ourselves to a couple of wide-eyed Belgian tourists. Yes, they’d heard of John Hume, but didn’t know until I told them that the Foyle bridge they’d just crossed was built with European funds that he had lobbied hard to obtain.
The pub was close to the chapel where he was now a daily communicant, recalling his early days in Maynooth. (There, another career beckoned, to a leading role in the Church, before doubts prevailed.) As we waited for Pat to give us a lift home, he mused on priestly celibacy, predicting that the shortage of priests meant that it had to change. Otherwise, there’d be no one to say Mass.
The bright light that I had seen on the streets of Derry might have dimmed, but the spirit that inspired in the darkest days was still active. What he thought of Brexit and all that I never found out, but no one doubted that he would have been appalled.
Europe, to him, had been a bridge across which the two sides in Ireland could meet and co-operate, avoiding the hated (by him) arithmetical solution to the Northern Irish question, when nationalists outnumbered unionists.
It is Ireland’s loss — and Britain’s — that he was not there, even in a background role, to devise yet another ingenious way forward.
Northern Ireland Premium
John Hume, the former SDLP leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner who has died aged 83 after a short illness, earned a place in history as the father of the Northern Ireland peace process.