Beyond Hume: The challenge to the ‘stick a flag on it’ politics, is to build better and longer for all the people of Northern Ireland

Last week the Ireland cricket team, wearing black armbands for the old Derry warrior for peace, took on the ODI world champions and repeated the miracle of Bangalore, beat them with the same single last ball to spare and the same man, Kevin O’Brien, to dispatch them at the end.

Hume, as with much else in his long life, was no armchair cricket fan but someone who played several seasons for both City of Derry and Waterside Cricket Clubs. He will have known Protestants who would later felt they had to leave town he loved so well because of the intimidation and violence of the IRA.

When you’ve played folk on the sports field you know every aspect of their character and the enabling culture that holds them and their community together. Hume may not have been the most giving to unionism (Devlin and Fitt thought him too rigid), but he knew IRA violence had tortured his city.

Disorder of the long campaign of violence

He listened to the people who mattered (the ordinary folks he had grown up with), and true to what became an integral part of the originating story of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland, the blatant gerrymander of Londonderry corporation, and later the tragedy (and public slander) of Bloody Sunday.

But he was always clear that the Provisionals’ long war polarised the people of his city (disastrously for its Protestant minority), it reshaped Catholic communities such that dissent against was close to impossible. By now, generations have lived with paramilitary arbitrariness and disorder ever since.

Somewhere in the academic literature, there is a record of the reluctance of IRA volunteers in the early parts of the Troubles even to hijack a neighbour’s car because they thought it wrong and immoral, but by the end of the conflict (and for the legacy paramilitaries), it came to be viewed as a right.

Accordingly, paramilitaries still persist despite more than 20 years of commitment to peace under the Belfast agreement. Only last year, in Hume’s home town, we witnessed the slaughter of young journalist Lyra McKee. Even former IRA hard men there bring their own children for punishment shootings.

These Human Rights violations routinely go unpunished partly because of the communal fear that’s been engendered by anonymous and unaccountable men with guns, and by a corrosive ambiguity towards the idea of ‘political crime‘, which is never subject to any form of credible review.

This is why it is important not only to understand Hume the man but his legacy of resistance to the gun in Irish political life.  Tom McTague in The Atlantic magazine makes a crucial point, that what comes after is at least as important as the life formerly lived:

History is complicated and nostalgia a seductive liar, as the former U.S. diplomat George Ball once remarked. Today’s Northern Ireland is a place that Hume envisaged and succeeded in creating. It is at peace and free to choose its own future. It is better than the one it replaced.

But it also remains beset by deep problems. To solve them, the new generation of political leaders in Northern Ireland and beyond would be wise to look to the vision, strategic patience, and politicking that saw Hume’s vision triumph.

But it would not be sacrilege to point out that some of today’s problems are the inevitable consequences of the stubborn realities that Hume’s necessarily imperfect vision could not solve.

When giants die they are sanctified, but they do not often become giants by being saints. As Hume would have acknowledged, life is more complicated.

Optimistic roots of an agreed Ireland

And yet, with Tom’s caveat very much lodged, much of the work Hume saw at the start of his career still remains for his successors to carry on. This letter, published by the Irish Times back in 1964, shows just how angry he was at the old Nationalist’s party failure to lead through democratic action:

Leadership has been the comfortable leadership of flags and slogans. Easy, no doubt, but irresponsible. There has been no attempt to be positive, to encourage the Catholic community to develop the resources, which they have in plenty, to make a positive contribution in terms of community service.

Unemployment and emigration, chiefly of Catholics, remains heavy, much of it no doubt due to the skilful placing of industry by the Northern government, but the only constructive suggestion from the nationalist side would appear to be that removal of discrimination will be the panacea for all our ills.

It is this lack of positive contribution and the apparent lack of interest in the general welfare of Northern Ireland that has led many Protestants to believe the Northern Catholic is politically irresponsible and immature and therefore unfit to rule.

Bigotry and fixation about religious divisions are the first things that strike any visitor to the North. The nationalist line of the past 40 years has made its contribution to this situation. Catholics of all shades of political thought are expected to band together under the unconstructive banner of nationalism.

When Hume wrote that piece in 1964 the chief opposition to unionism was the Northern Ireland Labour Party who’s brief flowering back then paradoxically matched the reforming instincts of Terence O’Neill which were subsequently stymied by the often paranoid fundamentalism of Ian Paisley.

This was a moment of economic and political optimism on both sides of the border. In the Republic, Seán Lemass had recognised the limitations imposed upon the Republic by DeValera’s trade war inward-looking economic development programme of the 1930s.

As early as 1959 Lemass announced that the traditionally acquisitive outlook of the Republic and that of his own political party Fianna Fáil upon Northern Ireland was no longer fit for purpose. North-south relations had begun to thaw.

As O’Neill (after the relative indolence of the Brookeborough era) began to seek new light industries to replace NI’s fading industrial base so Lemass began to develop new practical strategies to bring new industry to Dublin and Cork.

This is the proper context in which to view the (what may now look now as quaint) optimism of John Hume in 1964. Without denying his community’s ambition for a united Ireland he put the pragmatic improvement in the lives of the people in Northern Ireland as a clear first priority.

And in doing so he identified sectarianism (from wherever it came) as a distraction to the fulfillment of those key goals of social-economic improvement and mutual development. This was the mountain he clearly identified in the very first stages of his career as a political thinker and doer.

Action, not just words, matter

One of the most enlightening pieces on Hume’s politics is David McWilliams’ column in the Irish Times on Saturday.  At first glance, it is a case study of how the small contributions of a Credit Union can make a huge difference to poorer folk by giving them the possibility to act in their long term interest.

John Hume understood that the power of credit was the power to imagine a different future. Credit gave people the power to plan, to set aside money today in order to borrow a bit to finance a future stake in society, whether by paying the rent on a flat for a son or daughter to go to university, obtaining credit to buy a machine in a mechanic’s garage, or buying a drum kit for a band.

Credit, as I found out years ago in this 2003 interview is what builds wider circles of trust. Credit is related to the word ‘belief’ as commerce is to the word ‘community’: “without it people will only do business with people they know, which limits the number of people they can do business with”.

Little did the young Hume suspect that his ambition to climb that mountain would be waylaid by a 30-year campaign of violence which ultimately put limits on its capacity to realise that ambition within his own lifetime. And the pessimistic fatalism that that conflict gave rise to is still very much in evidence.

How violence drags on the collective mind

Hume is much criticised, even today, by writers such as Ruth Dudley Edwards and Christopher Montgomery for bringing what was at the time a sublimely anti-democratic provisional movement in under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

That criticism is not only understandable, it’s also justified. Through Hume, Adams was brought into the peace talks and through him, a still-active IRA was still coldly using murder for its own strategic and tactical advantages even within the later stages of those negotiations.

It was galling for his own party to witness never mind Unionism at large. And they would later pay the price as Adams took spent much of the following two decades taking most of the credit for what had largely been Hume’s own work. As indeed, David Trimble suffered parallel losses to the DUP.

The morality of this was tricky for any honest democrat. One of its corollaries was to comparatively featherbed former terrorists in ways that later peace processes like those in Spain and Columbia (who had the advantage of learning from NI’s mistakes) conspicuously did not.

This, it can be persuasively argued, has had a lasting and dilatory effect on Northern Irish society particularly the marginalised working class from whom Hume himself sprung. In this conversation with Kevin Cullen back in 2001, he articulates his early suspicion of nationalism as a narrowing concept:

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Even his most ardent critics acknowledge Hume’s lack of ambiguity on murder. He spent himself in an often missionary pursuit of the cessation of such political crime, to the extent that both he and his party had little left to give by the time peace settled in.

His singled mindedness in particular exhausted his party leaving it with little left to give and in the hands of a series of caretakers who between them oversaw a long electoral decline and near eclipse by Gerry Adams and a seemingly newly shriven and unstoppable Sinn Féin.

Whilst this cannot have been easy for him to witness from afar, as Eoghan Harris argues in the Sunday Independent, little enough of the blame for these subsequent failures attach directly to Hume:

 John Hume is not responsible for any adverse results of his Herculean work for peace in his beloved Northern Ireland.

He is not responsible for Northern nationalists voting for Sinn Féin. Nor for the southern media’s indulgence of Sinn Féin and the loss of our moral compass.

John Hume never lost his own moral compass. His cherished peace process was taken from him by evil elements and used to erode ethical boundaries in both parts of the island.

Redress for 20 years of ‘stick a flag on it’ politics?

And yet in recent years has seen something resembling a sea change in northern politics. The rise of the middle, which as Peter Shirlow has noted in the most recent edition of Cargo of Bricks has long been predicted in a series of surveys and indeed in the movements of the 2011 census.

Some of that change is the result of the peace, of the unwinding of the cruel binaries of war. It has introduced an ability and voter sentiment that was evident before the troubles struck, but which disappeared under the pressure of polarising violence from both the IRA and loyalist reactionaries.

This is one of the reasons why his legacy is still relevant to post troubles in Northern Ireland even now, after his death and more than twenty years after the signing of the historic Belfast Agreement.

Most of that work is still to be done. Much of the assertions of confidence within Northern Catholics applies largely to those who following Hume’s example have done well for themselves comprise the new Catholic and unapologetic middle-class.

After 20 years with Sinn Féin at the head of Northern Irish nationalism single identity Catholic areas still account for some of the poorest educational outcomes and economic standing in the whole of Northern Ireland.

Despite such warm, self-congratulatory nostrums, recent focus on constitutional issues rather than the welfare and well-being of those still living within the boundaries of Northern Ireland little has been done to improve the lives of our poorest citizens.

Hume was never so easily distracted by empty rhetoric or by flags and emblems. He opposed the imposition of the McBride principles on the grounds that he did not want any disincentives to bringing new jobs where they were needed.

It was by such flinty pragmatism that the Republic dragged itself out of the doldrums of the 1950s to the heights of the Celtic Tiger but also the lows of the last 10 years. Changing the world or just climbing one mountain of ambition takes more than one lifetime. Hume knew it involved real reversals.

It is sustained by tumultuous moments of success and then collectively admonished for its mistakes and missteps along the way with sudden and even long reversals of fortune. Looking back on Hume’s career it is easy to view it through the lens of triumph, but the scars too were part of his long term victory.

However, his successes only came through a long and stoic endurance of such reversals and failures. It was Hume’s vision that marked him out amongst his peers: a quality that is ever in short supply in the politics of any nation.

It is often said that Hume sacrificed his party for the achievement of the Belfast Agreement. But the fact is that the SDLP was the single most popular party, ahead of all others in terms of votes gained in the elections of 1998.

Whilst what followed for his party was the equivalent of a long dark night of the soul in which its popularity drifted to below 50% of that 1998 figure over the following 20 years, more recently it has enjoyed something of a revival.

At his passing, the SDLP holds Hume’s old seat of Foyle by a 17,000 vote majority. Elsewhere the pluralist Alliance and Green parties have made substantial inroads both on Sinn Féin’s and the DUP‘s core vote.

In part, this is a result of twenty years of stasis and failure which at its core an inability to agree (probably the most Hume-ian word he’s left us) a common approach, a common purpose and a common programme for action.

Hume’s legacy belongs to all parties and none

But it is also the emergence of a new generation of political voices in the form of Naomi Long, Claire Bailey, and of course the SDLP’s own Colum Eastwood as viable alternatives. Between them, and to some extent the new taoiseach they have begun to painstakingly chisel out a new pluralist space.

Each in their own way is an inheritor of Hume’s tough-minded understanding that nothing of any lasting (keyword) worth can be gained without people from all traditions (and increasingly none) finding in whatever space the way and the means to work together.

This week Ian Paisley Junior chose to tell a story of Hume working in partnership not alone with his own father but with the UUP’s John Taylor in Strasburg, where, whatever the tumult at home, all three worked for the interests of Northern Ireland.

No nationalist, north or south, worth the salt of his or her own ambition for the island can afford to ignore or even try to supersede the legacy of John Hume in this regard. There is no magic blue pill (or poll) that can take away the challenging (red pill) work of uniting the people before territory.

Hume’s analysis of the indolence of the old nationalist party bears uncanny relation to 20 years of non-achievement of the dysfunctional partnership of the DUP and Sinn Fein in their dominant roles in Stormont’s Executive. Adams’ Cuige Uladh speech in 2017 might be channelling Eddie McAteer in 69.

The difference between now and 1964 is that that indolence can be challenged without the immediate danger of plunging the whole state back into a violent, long-term dirty war of a kind not even its main protagonists want to see ever again on our island.

Many are deeply tired of the peace process sophistry, and some are walking away, not to the dissidents, but other more pluralist alternatives that show some understanding of the gains made by the Belfast Agreement, and the need to build on it, not just as an excuse for majoritarian fantasies of a border poll.

As Bertie Ahern noted at the onset of Sinn Féin’s recent three-year boycott of Stormont…

“The idea of a border poll… was put there when when I was conceding Articles two and three of the constitution and we were giving up the territorial right of the north and I wanted to copper-fasten in that if the day came where on the principle of consent people in the north – of all traditions – voted for a united Ireland then we would have agreement on that.

“It was not for some kind of sectarian vote or a day that the nationalists and Republicans could outvote the unionists and loyalists… if you want trouble again in the north play that game. It’s a dangerous game,”  he said.

The sum of Hume’s political life demands more than national reverence at the moment of his passing. The understated modesty of his funeral belies his greatness as a visionary and statesman. His legacy of gritty optimism in the agreed future he helped to nurture and broker is his greater gift.

It’s not a future of easy returns, but of great ones. There are many living today who see their children and grandchildren grow to maturity and success that were it not John Hume might never have even existed. And, we have to understand, as he did, I think, that as Michael Longley put it, peace…

…is how we interact with one another, civilization. On the one hand, I’m interested in how we avoid tearing one another to pieces.

Peace is not that, peace is the absence of that, peace is the absence of war: the opposite of war is custom, customs, and civilization. Civilization is custom and manners and ceremony, the things that Yeats says in “A Prayer for My Daughter.”

We have a vocabulary of how to deal with one another and how to behave, a vocabulary of behavior, as well as things to say to one another …and out of that come laws and agreed ways of doing things…

That’s not the easy way forward. It’s one that takes the long term over the short. It means focusing on what makes life better for people in the medium to long term. In the world of 2020, that still means helping people tackle private debt, housing, and the environment. Not things guaranteed to bring votes.

And it means treating the people of Northern Ireland as an integrated interdependent whole regardless of long term constitutional aspiration. Nothing of any import can change on the scale it needs unless it changes for everyone right across the board.

The one for youse one for us paralysis that we’ve endured for the last 20 years has failed the people of Tigers Bay as it has the people of Turf Lodge. Both need the sort of unified action across the board that transforms not only the fortune of the city but the way that fortune is distributed among its citizens.

It can only happen with the sort of long term vision (and combative energy that once made the SDLP the most popular party in Northern Ireland) that Hume had for an Agreed Ireland, and to quote Longley, a prayer that all our daughters (and sons) might come to a proper house…

Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

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