John Hume: Irish peacemaker. Discuss.

John Hume: Irish peacemaker. Discuss.
by Allan Leonard for Northern Ireland Foundation
15 December 2015

Sean Farren and Denis Haughey have edited a new book, John Hume: Irish Peacemaker, published by Four Courts Press. As part of this book launch, there is a series of panel discussions, for which this event took place at the Canada Room, Queen’s University Belfast.

Moderated by Jim Fitzpatrick, the panellists were Arthur Aughey, Marianne Elliott, Maurice Hayes and Eamon Phoenix.

After a welcome by Sean Farren, outgoing Queens University Chancellor, Tony Gallagher, told the audience of a hundred that John Hume is the most iconic figure of Irish politics. Mr Gallagher made comparisons with Daniel O’Connell (whose orientation was Dublin/Ireland) and Charles Stewart Parnell (Westminster), while Mr Hume’s reference point is Europe and the lessons of two world wars and its reconstruction project.

With an appropriate anecdote of his own experience attempting, and succeeding, to gain entry to a White House hosted St Patrick’s Day reception of dignitaries (Ireland’s Foreign Minister to the rescue!), Mr Fitzpatrick invited each panellist to give a brief summary of their interpretation of Mr Hume’s contribution to politics.

Maurice Hayes discussed the significance of the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement, during which he served as senior civil servant in Northern Ireland. Mr Hayes said that one lesson for Mr Hume was that power sharing, of any type, requires the cooperation of the Unionist population; one can’t impose shared power.

However, Mr Hayes said that the inclusion and insistence on the element of a Council of Ireland — and with John Hume and Garret Fitzgerald (then Irish Foreign Affairs Minister) presenting a concerted effort in this regard — saddled Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, with more weight than he could handle, particularly in relation to Unionist cooperation.

Positively, Mr Hayes reflected how the Executive that resulted from the Sunningdale Agreement did have a “common purpose” and collective responsibility. Decisions were made consensually; there were few votes.

But as power and legitimacy went from the elected to the unelected, with the fallout after the collapse of the Sunningdale Agreement, achieving cross-community agreement would be more difficult, but that Mr Hume “bore with it”.

Eamon Phoenix provided a historical context of John Hume, a form of early years’ biography, as a suggestion to his character and outlook. First and perhaps foremost, unlike other leading northern Irish nationalists before him, Mr Hume came from “the achilles heal” of the Northern Ireland state, Derry-Londonderry.

And Mr Hume was greatly influenced by his docker father, who found himself out of work and once said to his son, “You can’t eat a flag,” in response to others blustering about partition.

John Hume got very much involved in the credit union movement, addressing both Hibernian clubs and Orange halls about the importance of saving.

But Unionist politics continued to disappoint him. A key moment was the decision in 1965 not to grant Derry-Londonderry with university status, even with wide local support, including the Unionist Mayor, Albert Anderson.

As Dr Phoenix explained, this primed Mr Hume for evermore direct political engagement, with his well known involvement in the civil rights campaign, which led to “more reforms in 40 days than anti-partitionists and the Republic had managed in 40 years”.

Marianne Elliott mooted whether John Hume is the “common name of Irishman”, referencing Wolfe Tone regularly. She argued that, like Wolfe Tone, Mr Hume can be viewed as an evolving contradiction of Irish nationalism.

This was demonstrated with examples of Mr Hume’s engagements with British Government ministers, Northern Ireland Prime Minister Brian Faulkner, and fellow Irish constitutional nationalists. In the last, he said in an 1964 article in the Irish Times: “If you are a constitutional nationalist, then you need to recognise the constitution of the country [Northern Ireland].” This was exemplified by Irish nationalists arguing for equal rights as being British citizens.

Arthur Aughey contributed a unionist critique of John Hume, while recognising the stateman’s talents. “Why don’t we have someone like him?” a unionist of the day might have asked.

With reference to ATQ Stewart, Professor Aughey clarified that the Irish nationalist objective in the 1960s wasn’t to get to know Unionists better, but to change them. Combined with the thinking that Unionist politics was pathological, then it was rationalised by others that Unionists “needed to be forced to be free”. Ergo the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Prof. Aughey concluded that now many tend to marginalise the contributions by John Hume, the SDLP and all constitutional Irish nationalists. He argued that the achievement of peace goes beyond the journeys of ex-combatants/ex-prisoners, to the efforts of “constitutional citizens”.

The subsequent audience discussion covered the significance of the European dimension to Northern Ireland’s peace, the pivotal moment of the Hume-Adams Talks, and whether any Unionist politician got on well with John Hume.

Maurice Hayes explained Mr Hume’s pursuit of European intervention, in his determination to change the context of the Northern Ireland question. Dr Phoenix added that Mr Hume wanted to remove trade borders, within Ireland as well as across Europe.

In regards to Sinn Fein’s entry into the peace process, Mr Hayes and Prof. Elliott made the familiar refrain that one does not make peace with one’s friends, but with who is doing the fighting. Dr Phoenix provided the context of the Enniskillen bomb and Sinn Fein’s President, Gerry Adams’s speech at the time, seeking a way out of the violence; John Hume reached out. Prof. Elliott added that elected representatives from Sinn Fein participating in local government councils “behaved better” than the party’s unelected spokespersons. Also, she said, when the news broke out about the Hume-Adams Talks, “It was at a time when no one knew where to go”; there was a need to break the mould. Prof. Aughey said that this felt like “a double whammy” for Unionists (combined with the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement), as well as a shock for some within the SDLP itself.

Prof. Elliott said that she was surprised by the level of public hatred by Unionists towards John Hume, which appeared more vitriolic than that expressed against Gerry Adams. But she also referenced the constructive engagements with Brian Faulkner and other Unionist ministers of the 1973 Executive.

One pertinent moment that demonstrates this enmity, though, was the 1975 Constitutional Convention. Dr Phoenix reminded us of the boycott by all Unionists on the day when John Hume made his presentation; he spoke to empty benches. Mr Hayes recalled Mr Hume’s speech at the time, quoting him, “One day we will understand the words that we use.”

To conclude the event, co-editor Denis Haughey explained the motivation for the book: “We were determined that John Hume’s legacy should not be misrepresented.” Mr Haughey added that the definition of a great man is one who pursues a vision, which when realised transforms the way we live. He declared John Hume as a great man.

Furthermore, Mr Haughey continued, Mr Hume invited the language of peace that we speak, “Hume speak”.

So while John Hume could be criticised for his unilateral actions, what he was doing was changing the context, participants and language to be applied for peace.

In this way, John Hume is undeniably an Irish peacemaker.



The book has been produced by Sean Farren and Denis Haughey. The foreword of the book is from President Bill Clinton and includes a series of contributions from Paul Arthur, Arthur Aughey, Austin Currie, Seán Donlon, Mark Durkan, Marianne Elliott, Cathy Gormley-Heenan, Maurice Hayes, Pat Hume, Brigid Laffan, David McKittrick, Seán O’Huiginn, Éamon Phoenix and Nancy Soderberg.

The editors were two of John Hume’s closest SDLP colleagues. Both served as ministers in the first partnership administration in Northern Ireland following the 1998 agreement. Seán Farren is the author of The SDLP – the struggle for agreement in Northern Ireland, 1970–2000 (2010).

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