This blog first appeared in the Andersonstown News
Every death is a tragedy: the departure of any man or woman leaves a hole in the lives of those who loved them. But when someone of John Hume’s stature dies, it feels like the loss not just of a national treasure but of someone akin to a national parent.
John Hume was never a nationalist, and had a degree of impatience with those who were. “You can’t eat a flag” he would say, quoting his father. His abiding interest was to improve the living conditions of Irish people. When he helped found the Credit Union in Derry and at 27 years of age became the president of the Irish League of Credit Unions, it was to develop support for people in their everyday lives. He’s quoted as saying “Of all the things I’ve been doing, it’s [the Credit Union] the thing I’m proudest of because no movement has done more good for the people of Ireland, north and south, than the credit union movement.”
But he will be remembered for his leading role in the Civil Rights Movement. While the old Nationalist Party struggled for decades to have its voice heard in Stormont, Hume took his unmasking of gerrymander and discrimination to the streets. What had been hidden or ignored was now in the open and unavoidable. The northern state had been built on discrimination and gerrymander. Unionists knew this and ran it along those lines; Britain ducked its responsibility for fifty years by averting its gaze and pretending not to see. John Hume and the civil rights movement blew their cover.
For most of his political life, Hume worked to create peace. The non-violence of the civil rights movement had collapsed in the face of violent unionist reaction, which in turn was met by an armed republican response. Hume tried to find a way of ending the violence.
He wasn’t interested in a united Ireland: he was interested in a fair society and peace. British reporters sometimes tried to lump Hume in with the violence of the Troubles. On one occasion a British journalist asked him “Do you ever examine your conscience, Mr Hume?” He got a frosty reply: “I do, I examine my conscience regularly. As I hope you and other people do as well.”
He showed enormous courage, not only as a leader of a peaceful movement that was savagely attacked in word and deed, but as a man on a mission for peace. When he became involved in the Hume-Adams talks, he suffered constant abuse from holier-than-thou voices, particularly in the southern media. But it didn’t deter him, and in 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was the fruit of his labour and the labour of many others.
I met John Hume twice during his life – before he entered the public arena and after he had left it.
In the mid-1960s, along with several other ex-St Columb’s boys, I visited him in his Derry home. At that time he was young, good-looking and very welcoming. His family were on holiday in Donegal, he explained, which was great, because it allowed him to work all night on some research he was doing for a Master’s degree into nineteenth-century conditions in Derry . Although he was several years older than any of us, he made us feel his equal in every way.
The second time I met him was ten years ago, when along with Martin McGuinness he was guest of honour at the launch of a book I’d compiled about St Columb’s College in the 1950s. Even at that point he was beginning to suffer from dementia, but he made a short and heart-felt speech about why St Columb’s ha been important in his life and that of many others.
As a politician, he made the mistake of not providing for those in the SDLP who would come after him. As a man, he had many of the qualities the rest of us can only envy: good looks, energy, integrity, courage, and a lifelong commitment to improving the lot of his fellow humans. John Hume’s was indeed a life well lived.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.