RTE’s celebration of John Hume feels like nostalgia for a time that has gone

RTE have just screened a documentary In the Name of Peace; John Hume in America by Maurice Fitzpatrick which the film maker has kindly drawn to my attention. Being in London I cannot access it yet nor have I read his accompanying book. But from the YouTube trail, this is a major celebration of John Hume’s life and work. Anybody who was anybody is in it, led by Clinton and Blair, although Jimmy Carter was not quite so dazzled.  As it traces the long and widening road to peace, it accords the familiar unique place to Hume as the person who charted the way not only for Dublin but also for Washington. To have invoked not only the unpredictable elements of Irish America but the Washington establishment, mainly but not only Democratic, was no mean feat.  And it was mainly achieved before the collapse of Communism at a time when the US was wary of pushing their British ally too hard.

Without wishing to detract from his achievement and not having seen the film, the publicity and reviews strike me as celebrating another time, of history now in aspic. The great men (mostly men) have long departed, returning only briefly to celebrate their roles when Northern Ireland was briefly on the world stage. Not that the legacy is all lost; only that we have failed to pick it up yet.

It is arguable that Hume in America created the essential leverage to persuade the British to recognise the case of Irish nationalism through treating the Republic as an equal partner. That recognition created the crucial opening for Sinn Fein to negotiate. But there are other contexts which need to be weighed.

From at least 1972 if not 1969, a Westminster consensus was building for the power sharing that was actually implemented just before Sunningdale.  By 1973, the Troubles had gone on for far too long for goodness’ sake – five whole years!  While the unionists split leaving the wreckers in the majority, the bigger failure was by  the two governments, who at that stage were still unprepared  to  cooperate effectively to face communal violence in the North together.

After Sunningdale’s collapse Hume I think gave up on unionists for a quarter of a century.  Growing up in the self contained if not self sufficient west bank of Catholic Derry (the Bogside was a single street) he had never really lived among them or knew their language; and unlike Fitt and Devlin with their roots deep in bigger city politics, he grew to be more comfortable in Dublin than Belfast and in Washington and Strasbourg than London.

But after Sunningdale Seamus Mallon is probably right:

Knowing Hume as I do, it was not to curry personal favour, or to enjoy the pleasure of American hospitality. Quite simply, there was nowhere else to go. The Irish government was beginning to exert pressure on the British government to create a lasting solution. But put crudely, Britain was very reluctant to challenge the unionist veto that had brought Northern Ireland to the brink of civil war. The only place from where that pressure could come was from the US.

While Hume figures strongly  in the timeline from the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 to the Good Friday Agreement of 1997,  the leading role  passes inexorably to  governments and the two major elements  outside Sunningdale, Sinn Fein and a ( more or less)  united  Unionist party.

Hume was a leader as loner albeit with a chorus in support; and as loner he may be judged. Is his reputation wholly justified?    The blunt fact remains that politics of his kind failed to make a major impact for a quarter of a century.  Much is made of Hume – Adams. But Hume and McGuinness lived within 300 yards of each other for the whole of the period without making meaningful contact as far as I know.

Might he and others have done more to mobilise public opinion to call a halt to the IRA campaign earlier, like the women outside the Bogside Inn in 1971 who were instrumental in forcing a halt to the Official IRA campaign? Or was the cycle of violence with the IRA and the Army so implacable that it could only be broken by IRA containment if not defeat; and only then could the real peace making start?

Might Hume have tried a little harder to wean the British and the Unionists away from a security first“solution”, even though power sharing was always going to be a long haul?

As far as unionists are concerned for most of the period – and I knew many of them pretty well – probably not.  Right from the start, many unionists looked on him and feared him as a plausible croppy who wouldn’t lie down and who fooled the ignorant English with his vague talk of an agreed Ireland. If only they had realised it;  for most of the period Hume’s SDLP wore their nationalism lightly. They were a Northern Ireland First party although they never would have used such a term.

I look forward to reaction to Hume in America and a viewing eventually.  In the film’s promo Bill Clinton is shown describing John Hume as “Ireland’s Martin Luther King”. But he was not that nor could he have been. Amazingly for a country steeped in violence the United States has been spared the horrors of an African- American terrorist campaign tearing it apart.  The voice of civil rights was sufficiently persuasive – just – to staunch the fires of America’s Burning.   In our little corner, we had no such luck. Perhaps that’s another  reason why some Americans are drawn to the place; we are the microcosm that might have been their macrocosm.

My image of John Hume is as a mute bystander at the semi- state funeral of Martin McGuinness. Hume gets the hug from Clinton but it was McGuinness who gets the oration. I have many happier images of him but this is the one that lingers at the moment.    And I have a question: what would an active John Hume do today?

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

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