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.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London