John Hume, a thumbnail sketch of achievement and failure

I’ve never been quite sure if we can call John Hume an unvarnished nationalist, but if we do, he was a great example of a leading nationalist who wanted to reach agreement more than attain  the goal of  Irish unity, as expressed in  his  wonderful oxymoron, “ an agreed Ireland.”

While he enjoyed his hard- won international contacts, he remained unassuming, friendly and well grounded. Like many accomplished politicians he was less well regarded in some places where it mattered. Blinkered unionists spat out his name because they feared the genuine plausibility that so impressed outsiders including Dubliners in the early days when north-south contacts were remarkably few.

British politicians were nervous of his authority and influence in Dublin, Europe and Washington, which often exceeded theirs on Irish affairs. Equally nervous of being overshadowed  at times  were members of the Dublin establishment. There’s little doubt that he could have been crowned President of Ireland, had he wanted to be. That possibility elevates him to rough approximation with the status of a Daniel O’Connell or a CS Parnell, all the more so because of the feeling of incompleteness about his achievements  too.

Although he was a peerless networker – ( it helped that he enjoyed drink and food, in that order), the characteristics of the Derry Catholic never left him. This was a weakness in one sense. Although a very sociable man I don’t think he ever made an important unionist friend. Of course this was at least as much the fault of unionists as himself.

Capitalising on his civil rights prominence in Derry,  he got himself elected to the Stormont parliament in 1969 as one of a new modern and activist cadre of Catholic leadership. It was an important move, not to rely on purely extra-parliamentary tactics in response  to an exclusively majoritarian, although clearly faltering,  unionist regime.

Although acting under pressure from persistent violence, he was therefore too quick to lead the newly formed SDLP out of Stormont before internment in 1971,  despite the quiet reservations of some of his SDLP colleagues. It increased the distrust in which he was held by many unionists who read in him a determination to bring Stormont down.

After first  concluding the internal aspects of a voluntary coalition with the formerly hard line unionist leader Brian Faulkner in late 1973,  he was seared by the collapse of the power sharing executive in 1974 and never really trusted unionists again. There was some chuckling with Paisley and collaboration with John Taylor in Europe but it never amounted to much.

Adds. The tragedy of the 1970s and 80s was that unionists utterly misread  him as the IRA’s stalking horse, whereas he was offering the essential political pre-conditions for ending the Troubles. While I wouldn’t hold him to the sentiment, he once told me that if a political deal had stuck and the paramilitaries did not respond, he would have made the civil war period of WT  Cosgrave look like a tea party. This, like his “a united Ireland or nothing” just after Bloody Sunday, need not be taken literally, but were signs of  deep frustrations at many  terrible moments.

His endless travels took him to Dublin, Brussels/Strasbourg and Washington more than Belfast and London, despite his membership of Westminster and  Stormont. On one of his last days in Westminster he lamented to me how much he would miss “ his colleagues” there. But in truth he chose to make little impact in the Commons.  It simply gave him the necessary credentials of leadership.

Presenting them with a feasible alternative to the IRA’s nihilistic credo of “Brits out”  his main strategy up to the 1990s was to lobby concentric circles of outsiders to the north  to put pressure on the British government to put pressure on unionism. Dublin, Washington and finally London all obliged, the tangible result being the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 which set limits to unionist veto power.  It was a remarkable solo effort of diplomacy. He became a lionised figure, his celebrity contrasting with dour and unregarded figures like Jim Molyneaux and the still ranting Paisley.  But there was more work to do on the nationalist side, to chart a route out of violence for the IRA.

Despite his easy manner he played it close politically, arguably too close. His leadership style was more presidential than consensual. He failed to meld the SDLP of strong individuals into a conventional party. I’m not sure he even tried. Instead he managed to suck air out of rivals like Gerry Fitt ( who deplored the rise of the  “ country schoolmasters”), and the whole first class generation of the 1960s including Austin Currie, Paddy O’Hanlon and the outstanding fiery Paddy Devlin.  Belfast became uncovered by a major figure when the old City Hall socialists quit.  Of course the long absence of a political forum with salaries attached played a part in their eclipse after Gerry Fitt’s resignation as titular leader   and it was to  their great credit that the SDLP  managed to survive at all  and hold off the challenge of Sinn Fein  for so long.

John’s idea of compromise was to think hard about the factors involved and then present it as the solution for approval. He was genuinely pained when it was rejected.

Yet his persistence with others in contacts with the republican movement  bore fruit.  The tortuous Hume-Adams relationship was perhaps necessarily clandestine. Seamus Mallon and Eddie McGrady   were total sceptics but would not gainsay him, nor had they a better idea.

It  might be thought a big mistake  for him not to have  taken on the role of deputy first minister after the GFA and instead spring it on the crustier  and less adroit Seamus Mallon. But he might have already felt his powers waning and perhaps ducked the challenge for that reason.  However had he done so he might have risen better than Mallon to the twin  challenges of dealing with the prickly and hard pressed Trimble and above all, confronting the republican movement to disarm quicker. His party and the centre ground  as a whole might just have held the leading role.  We shall never know.

John has faded into the twilight and celebrity. Some revisionism is due soon..

But Happy Birthday John. I’m glad to hear you’re quite serene.

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  • ted hagan

    Nice tribute to a great man. It all seems such a long time ago.
    Boy, those were mighty piss-ups at the annual conferences. World-beaters.

  • Eamon Hanna

    A generally fair proto-obituary, Brian. A couple of corrections or clarifications:
    1. John first became an elected representative in February 1969, not 1970, when he unseated Eddie McAteer as MP for the Foyle seat in the last Stormont Parliament election. Eamonn McCann also contested that election and was well beaten.
    2. He “…never really trusted unionists again”, especially after the collapse of the Sunningdale Executive and the 1975 Convention. That is true. He once told me that at the Atkins talks he offered Harry West and Ian Paisley that they could return to majority rule at Stormont if they agreed just one term of power sharing. They turned him down and that set him on the path of ‘widening the context’.
    3. He had no great regard for the status of being a Westminster MP, which got up the noses of self-important parliamentarians, not all of them Tories. He had learned the lessons of Irish history and what happened to the Irish Parliamentary Party.
    4. There are a number of events from the mid seventies which I, for one, will not reveal at this time, but will be revealed some day, but which deeply and permanently discredit, if that is even possible, that psychotic mass murderer, Sean Mac Stiofain and the Provisional IRA, and others still alive and active in public life.

    The greatest man I ever knew, rarely talked ill of anyone, generous, kind and at times surprisingly innocent and with tremendous and well-justified intellectual self-confidence.

    Ni bheidh a leithead ann aris/there will not be his likes again. Ad multos annos/pour longtemps encore/long life to him and cherish him while he is here with us.

  • JOHN TURLEY

    Those of us that lived before, during and after the troubles know the truth,
    how hard John worked for peace,people blame him for not doing more for
    the S.D.L.P., There were plenty of them there at the time if they were good
    enough.. Peace in the North was his aim.There are some that wil not forgive
    him for opening the door for Adams. Lets wish him and his wife the best of .
    luck.revisionism we do not need. He has done us all some service..

  • Brian Walker

    Thanks Eamonn I’d corrected the election date already. I didn’t know about the Atkins offer. Outrageous. I’d like to know more How did he think they could step back from power sharing (although I think they’d dropped the name) after just one term.The SDLP of course refused to play ball with that brief period of post-Neave enthusiasm for union integration.

  • Eamon Hanna

    Brian, I hope you and yours are well. I know that you often heard John’s oft-repeated mantra ‘It’s by working together in good faith that you build up trust…’ He had seen it work (John referred to it as ‘grace’) between himself and the late Brian Faulkner in the less than five months of the Sunningdale Executive. He was prepared to gamble that West/Paisley would see the advantages of genuine power-sharing that they would not want to revert to majority rule.

  • Brian Walker

    Eamon, My best wishes to you and yours.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Sorry, a dissenting voice but then I am a dissenter …

    I just think that as the leader of northern nationalism for nearly all of the Troubles, his failure to build bridges with, or any real empathy for, unionists was surely a massive failing. He saw no difficulty with essentially blaming unionism for nationalist violence. Yes he was against the IRA and campaigned against them and all that – and I don’t understimate the bravery of that – but he was also guilty of giving them moral cover, by buying into the same bogus narrative, which claims that IRA violence sprang mainly from injustice against nationalists, rather than through the deliberate choice of a vicious cult ideologically deeply wedded to using violence.

    I always felt as a moderate unionist who wanted power-sharing and a fair, progressive society, that when push came to shove, Hume would sooner side with fellow nationalists, no matter how violent, than someone like me. He wrote off people *for being unionists*. He was perhaps reflecting back the attitudes of some awful hardline unionists, which I understand. But it’s not good doing that to moderate unionists. And he seemed to have little or nothing to say to us. That was very odd. It was also really problematic, given the position he held.

    The Anglo-Irish Agreement remains a low point for him and for democracy in the British Isles. Characteristically, its failure was blamed on the people deliberately ignored and sidelined by it, pro-Union people. Yes, it was our fault again.

    But look, leading northern nationalism at a time when a third of nationalists were openly backing the IRA was an unenviable task and arguably no one could have done it any better than Hume did. A little awareness from him of the fact that by the early 70s nationalism could no longer claim any kind of moral high ground over unionism might have brought about agreement earlier. At a time when unionists people felt massively under attack from nationalist terrorists, he maintained a stream of rhetorical hostility to unionists that, to us, seemed like it came from the same place (while we recognised Hume was genuine in his belief in pursuing this non-violently). I think he misjudged the impact of the Troubles on the relationship between unionism and nationalism and it led him to throw his weight around rather unconstructively and actually negatively for many years.

  • Brian Walker

    Well, that is the counter case. I’d point out that he was pretty quick to do a power sharing deal with Brian Faulkner in 1973 although he like the whole nationalist side he overbid at Sunningdale. I’d only add that he understood unionism better than unionists understood moderate nationalism. You repeat the unionist error of identifying him with the cause of “nationalist terrorists”.

    After judicious intervals he came back for more after influencing the wind-up of the main obstacle to an accommodation, the IRA campaign. I am convinced that as between unionists and the SDLP, unionism’s was by far the greater failure.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Apologies if I came across as identifying him with the terrorists, my point was slightly different. It was that he came across as insufficiently cognisant of how the terrorism changed the whole moral equation in N Ireland – and that unionists could no longer be morally lectured in 1979 in the way that might have been fair enough in 1969. While not of course in any way responsible for nationalist terrorism, he should have accepted that united Ireland ambitions were not an appropriate thing to be pushing while the “armed struggle” was in train. I’m also surprised he couldn’t see that unionists were entitled to not want to budge while such a campaign was raining down on them – out of the understandable need to show defiance to terror and out of principle that terrorism should not be seen to extract advantages for its perpetrators.

    I think you’re right to credit him for a role in helping persuade the IRA to throw in the towel and that is no small thing. But I obviously disagree with you on unionist failure. I’ll only talk of the period of my political awareness and that starts in about 1980 (I was born just after the Troubles started in 69).

    My experience, coming from what we might call an Alliance voting unionist household in the 80s and 90s, was that the SDLP didn’t seem to want to have much to do with talks and the UUP were by contrast both open to this and consistently sidelined and traduced. The SDLP wouldn’t go into Prior’s assembly (which I visited with my school class at the invitation of an Alliance member). Then they were involved in the All Ireland Forum, talking to other nationalists rather than us then making grand proclamations of what ought to be; then we had the cloak and dagger anti-democracy farce that was the Anglo-Irish Agreement, again unionists hardly to blame and the SDLP at the centre of the shenanigans. That killed any chance of genuine cross-community politics until the early 90s, when there were constructive and successful UUP-SDLP talks, but after which Hume overrode his own negotiating team to veto a deal. Perhaps we could say he knew something better was on the way, but it was another 6 years and many deaths until the GFA. In this time unionists cannot be characterised as unconstructive. In 95-96 or so I was involved myself in contacts at the Irish embassy in London (OK-ed by the UUP, though we weren’t members) to help the Irish government understand unionist opinion, at a time when officially the UUP was not engaging in talks. So there were all sorts of contacts and talking going on, as I’m sure you’ll have been aware at that time.

    I just don’t buy the stereotype that unionists (the UUP at least) were unconstructive and wouldn’t engage. Maybe some truth in it before my time, but not so much since. I’m more Alliance or Labour these days but I do think the UUP were often admirable during the Troubles, in my time at least.

  • Madra Uisce

    Absolute revisionist nonsense . Unionists in the eighties and early nineties were not interested in engaging with Nationalist on any level For gods sake look at their behavior in local councils particularly Belfast. Alliance supporter my arse.

  • epg_ie

    “cloak and dagger anti-democracy farce”
    Well, if you won’t give even an inch, you don’t have the right to say Hume should have magicked up a mile. I don’t think enduring hardship as a community makes all its subsequent actions ok (otherwise there wouldn’t have been a moral problem with the IRA in the first place).

  • JOHN TURLEY

    The sectarian regime at Stormont and the sectarian police forces had to go
    both Hume and Adams played a major part in that, that was progress, only
    for them no change would have taken place.No doubt Hume was our
    greatest.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Thanks for the ad hominem accusation of dishonesty. Always a sign the person is struggling 🙂

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Such a myth. Unionists were portrayed as not giving an inch because we said no to some really OTT nationalist-leaning stuff, like the Anglo-Irish Agreement and various other attempts to give Dublin a direct say in NI affairs. They were perfectly entitled not to want that, as it was unacceptable to the bulk of the electorate. They were cast in the role of naysayers precisely because so many of the initiatives put forward, from Sunningdale to New Ireland Forum to AIA to Framework Documents were way too green. Had more unionist leaning proposals come forward, the SDLP would have been the naysayers (and actually were on several occasions). You need to be more objective and realise that the SDLP no more agreed to unionist proposals than vice versa. The SDLP had more influence outside NI and so were able to produce this cornering effect on unionists. Unionists representing most people in NI itself quite rightly weren’t having it, indeed it was their duty to insist on something better.

  • Barney

    ” They were perfectly entitled not to want that, as it was unacceptable to the bulk of the electorate.”

    Well we don’t know what was acceptable to the electorate as the question was never put to the public.

    The shockingly xenophobic brexit referendum will unfortunately apply in the six counties despite Irish people voting against it. The mandate the British government holds allows them to implement anything that is legal including the AIA.

    John Hume stood head and shoulders above anyone else in trying to solve the problems we have here in fact he still does despite his illness.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    “The question was never put to the public”
    Indeed and, in the case of the whole AIA debacle, that was at John Hume’s request. He knew it would have been voted down had it gone to a vote of the people, so he just sought to have it imposed. He assured London and Dublin, who should also have known better, that this was the only way to get political progress. How wrong he was. The process leading to the GFA learned from this appalling error and of course – duh – took the basic step of trying to keep both communities onside. Just idiotic not to, I’m sorry. What was he thinking?

    As there was no vote, Unionist MPs had to force a ‘quasi referendum’ by resigning their seats. The press at the time portrayed the Jan 86 bi-elections (if I remember the date right) as having back-fired because, for other reasons, South Down went to the SDLP. But actually overall, the bi-elections showed unionist voters coming out in big numbers, solidly behind the position of the main unionist parties. In truth, the unionist response was as near unanimous as damn it.

    I don’t know how Hume thought people would react to being treated like that, but he and the others involved misjudged it badly. It showed a real failure to grasp even the basics of agreement-building in a divided place. A remarkable episode that casts a shameful shadow over all those party to it.

  • Barney

    Hume had nothing imposed he didn’t have the power to do that; Quite simply he won the argument.

    You have described the AIA as undemocratic (in another thread) or a low point for democracy. The AIA was implemented by HMG which I believe is sovereign so what exactly was undemocratic about it?

    Brexit was rejected in Ireland yet you argue that the vote was UK wide. Above you seem to want only a tiny minority of the UKs people to have a say in a constitutional change. Hopefully your attitude to the electorate is not quite as elastic as it seems.

    We dont know what would have happened if the AIA was put to a vote even if you attempt to gerrymander the electorate.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Lovely. Thanks.

  • erasmus

    The AIA was essentially a very belated and very minimalist consolation prize for the NI nationalist community who were heavily screwed over by the 1921 settlement. It was a marginal reconstruction which still left the general balance sheet heavily and disproportionately loaded against them: their relevant sovereign power (for want of a better term) had a mere right to make representations while the other side’s continued to exercise absolute territorial sovereignty. However it meant that for the first time since the inception of the state its intrinsic bi-ethnicity had some measure of reflection in its general governance. It said a lot about the supremacist streak within unionism that even this scrawny morsel thrown to NI nationalists should arouse such vituperation. With all due respect, MU, it says a lot about your lack of objectivity that you should retrospectively validate such vituperation.

  • Barney

    MU I was hoping for an explanation as to why you think the AIA was undemocratic. John Hume was exceptionally good at putting his position across, he did convince HMG. It’s sad that you cannot explain what you mean:(

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Is that a serious question, Barney? There was no vote on it. Imposing an arrangement rejected utterly by unionists, who were kept in the dark completely in its planning? Like the poll tax in Scotland (same old Tories) it used a Westminster vote to create a special arrangement for one part of the UK, without seeking a democratic mandate from the region affected. Were you surprised that approach wasn’t repeated with the GFA?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Really don’t get me started on the AIA. It still makes me furious even thinking about it. A reminder of why unionists have to look out for ourselves. No one else can be trusted to treat unionists fairly. Hume and Fitzgerald were supposed to be the moderates. Incredible, jaw-dropping act by them, not to mention the idiotic English Tories. On that the nationalists do have it right – that part of the Establishment was hopelessly naive about N Ireland and ripe for being taken for a ride by Hume et al.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    No retrospective about it, I was out on the streets at the time as a 15 year old in protest.

    “Supremacist”, come on. Turn the tables, would nationalists have signed up to a deal unionists had hatched in private with no consultation, simply announced, then refused to put to the voters? We both know the answer is no.

  • Madra Uisce

    It’s not ad hominem. Your posts on Slugger in general and in this thread in particular make it clear that your political outlook is far removed from the Alliance position as most of us understand it. You are not fooling me and I doubt anyone else on Slugger is buying it

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Can you give an example (of how my “outlook” is far removed from the “Alliance position”)? It sounds like you expect anyone supporting Alliance to have to swallow whatever emanates from other parties – as if Alliance means not really having an opinion either way about anything. If so, you have a different vision of them and of centrist politics from me. One can be a centrist without being infinitely malleable. The centre is a diverse and heterogenous place. Alliance, last time I checked, was not closed to people of a unionist persuasion. The party indeed has its roots in moderate, non-sectarian unionism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alliance_Party_of_Northern_Ireland

    Whether my outlook is unique in Alliance or not (I think not) – I’m not the best judge of that and don’t much care – I just said they’d probably get my vote at the moment. I’m not claiming to be the reanimated corpse of Oliver Napier, though there’s a thought …

    Also do you know what ‘ad hominem’ means? It seems not. You said ‘Alliance supporter my arse’ about me. Ahem …

  • erasmus

    MU
    You are being plain disingenuous. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The AIA which bypassed the unionist veto was made necessary by unionist intransigence — essentially they had only themselves to blame. If it were put to a vote the said supremacist unionists would simply, true to form, have voted it down. Similarly if the suspension of Stormont in 1972 was made conditional on a vote it would have been voted down. As the classic example goes 51% of the population voting 49% of the population into slavery is not democracy. If the AIA were put to a vote the unionists would have voted nationalists into continuing ethnoexpressive shackling.
    The AIA was not a subversion of democracy; it was a blow *for* democracy. Any unionist that argues against it is effectively arguing against democracy and for sectarianism.
    Your party (the Alliance) actually supported it.
    Reading the current political entrails I think we are headed for an AIA with knobs on.

  • epg_ie

    Point stands. You wouldn’t give an inch. You demand that he magicked up a mile for you, trapped between paramilitaries and the least conciliatory majority at that time in European history.

  • erasmus

    PS.
    I still feel a measure of intense irritation and moral outrage when I think back on the unionist hysterics at the time. It was like a spoilt toddler throwing a tantrum on being forced to share his/her playpen.

  • epg_ie

    You mean Unionists + Dublin + London?

    Your community’s problem is that Daddy doesn’t love you and you know it (the other community’s problem is exactly the same, but that’s not clear to quite everyone yet).

  • MainlandUlsterman

    That’s some logic you have there Erasmus. You can have another try if you want, or are you sticking with that?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I think you may not understand our expectations of London. They are low and have been for as long as I have been around. Your comment might have been relevant in the 1920s or something but we learned a long time ago we stand on our own feet.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    And the fact that we had been left out of the process entirely then it was pushed on the region without a vote didn’t give you pause at all?
    You may be the only person still arguing the AIA was a model for how to do NI politics.
    The anger was real and had good cause. I find your attitude to it incredibly short-sighted.

  • erasmus

    Alright, let’s think the whole thing through logically:
    Consider the hypothetical situation of unionists having been successfully forced into a Home Rule parliament in 1912. This then evolves into a fully independent republic. We are then left with a British minority in the north-east corner nursing a transgenerationally multiplied sense of grievance, abandonment, and betrayal. A relatively enlightened Irish government in 1985 then allows its British counterpart a purely *consultative* role with respect to its discarded co-nationals as a gesture of reassurance and validation. Would you see this as anti-democratic? If Irish nationalists were to jump up and down in a shrieking rage at this concession would you not see them as petty and small-minded?