photo Irish News
It’s the memory of John the person that immediately springs to mind. I believe he came to see himself with the vision and strategy of a man of destiny. But he did so without any of the aura that would have set him apart and made him vulnerable to being taken down. The near sainthood that some have attributed to him must have made him smile. He had a great knack of friendliness even trust without ever actually giving much away. I suspect this stood him on good stead with party colleagues as eminent as Seamus Mallon who sometimes felt out of the loop during his many solo runs, especially over Hume- Adams.
As an interviewee he could be deeply frustrating as he rolled out time and again the short version of the single transferable speech. I was never sure – and never will be -how much he was committed to a constitutionally united Ireland. The formula of an Agreed Ireland is at most ambiguous or at least an oxymoron.
But suffering from complete disillusionment with unionism after the collapse of power sharing in 1974, John Hume began to chart the direction for all to follow. Rather than keep banging his head against the unionist wall, he moved in wide concentric circles to outflank them- to Washington, to Brussels to build support, to London vulnerable to foreign criticism over Ireland and always to Dublin where his influence was carefully cross party and all pervasive. Belfast was the general exception. He steered largely clear until the time was right. His message was essential simple but took years of blood and loss finally to register and is by now almost a truism ; only engagement would bring any sort of settlement between proud governments, between political parties and most controversially, between politicians and paramilitaries. With all the bumps and potholes on the road, this was his towering achievement.
His secrecy and individual style of leadership draws comparison with Parnell but his personal style was entirely the opposite. He would find a personal point of contact with you that remained with you for life; in our case Derry and Donegal family connections. He would have a sociable jar to unwind; one of the most fateful on the Saturday night before Bloody Sunday in the old City Hotel, hours after 1 Para had batoned charged anti-internment protestors at Magilligan camp with gratuitous force, an experience which made him fear for the following Sunday. At Strasbourg he enjoyed his fluent French over a decent bottle of wine and a meal and expected you to keep up , part of the genuine cosmopolitanism which was as much part of him as his deep Derry roots.
The codas were warm hearted. Just before he retired from Westminster in 2005 he would pull out of his wallet the receipts from the Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul for donating equal shares of his Nobel Prize award. There was a happy meeting in central lobby with his wife Pat and Seamus and Gertrude Mallon. Pat bless her is now the sole survivor. John declared how much how would miss his Westminster colleagues. I admit this surprised me. During his years with a dual and triple mandate he never seemed much at home there or indeed at Stormont. The corridors of power rather than the debating chambers were his natural forums. My last meetings were at Magee and finally about ten years ago in a Derry hotel over a coffee. The high politics were receding and the talk was gentle gossip.
As a Derry Catholic, he admitted he never really understood the unionist mind although it was alive and well a few streets away as he was growing up. He was puzzled because he genuinely believed he held the formula for their salvation too. Could they not see that the old supremacy was completely untenable? It was perhaps this conviction that he knew what was good for them that irritated the hell out of them more than his natural nationalism. He once asked a mutual friend: “Why do unionists not like me?” “ Because you’re too clever for them, John.” Not the whole truth perhaps, but there’s more than a little in it.
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