John Hume: a man for all seasons

I’ve just heard Chris Buckler talking with Gerry Adams about John Hume and his opposition to violence. As is to be expected from Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster, Buckler did all he could to contrast John Hume as peacemaker with Gerry Adams as man of violence. Adams pointed out that at that time, Sinn Féin were ostracized and demonized on every side – the British government, the Irish government, the Catholic Church. And when John Hume MP met for talks with Gerry Adams MP, which as Adams pointed out should have been the most natural thing in the world, Hume was vilified, in particular by the Irish Independent  and the Sunday Independent. (Adams might have added, although he didn’t, that the ostracizing of Sinn Féin continues in the south of Ireland to this day, with neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil prepared to so much as talk to the republican party, let alone enter a coalition with them.)

John Hume started his public life by helping set up the Derry Credit Union, and before he was thirty he became President of the Irish credit unions generally. He had one aim: to better the living conditions of people who had little. His leadership in the civil rights movement reflected the same concern: to exert pressure so that Catholics/Nationalists would have the same rights as other citizens in the UK.

Two qualities met in Hume: a revulsion at the taking of human life and a total lack of interest in nationalism as a concept. Back then, it was surprising how many Catholic people had little or no interest in Irish unity – that’s why the IRA campaign of 1956-62 collapsed. John Hume cared passionately about equality, a concept foreign to our stateen, hence the violent reaction to civil rights marches. But Hume was nothing if not stubborn: he made alliances and friendships in high places, in Britain, in Ireland and in the USA. And always his concern was to further the drive to equality and to avoid the shedding of blood.

I last saw John Hume ten years ago exactly, when he was the joint guest of honour with Martin McGuinness at the launch of my book Tales Out of School: St Columb’s College in the 1950s. Even at that point John was suffering from a degree of dementia, but he delivered a short, cogent speech expressing his gratitude to St Columb’s which gave him and many like him an education that equipped them to face down discrimination.

He had sincerity, he had integrity and he had the courage of his beliefs, and those beliefs sustained him through dark times, including what I would regard as the humiliation of sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with David Trimble.  Sincerity, integrity, courage: there are few of us who wouldn’t settle for that as a summary of our lives.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam – May he rest in peace.  

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