Seldom has the passing of a man managed to reach every corner of every home on the island of Ireland, but John Hume’s death on Monday brought to light some of the darkest moments in our recent history when Hume saw hope when it was furthest away.
rom Civil Rights campaigns in the 1960s, to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Hume’s legacy is one of risk for the greater good of peace: ‘If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you,’ is a famous Rudyard Kipling line that could have been penned with the Hume-Adams peace talks in mind.
The talks happened against the backdrop of Republican and Loyalist violence and while many trusted Hume’s judgment, more slated him unfairly.
Peace-keeper and visionary, the Derry man was no slave to ideology. This meant Hume could often assess the political landscapes that others could not – logical response ahead of emotional reaction was Hume’s strength.
Born in Derry in 1937, the former SDLP leader and Nobel Prize recipient worked to put ‘the Troubles’ at the forefront of European and US politics. From a platform of diplomacy and non-violence, Hume engineered the kind of political clout in Washington D.C that would weaken the British Home Office’s input into ‘Irish affairs’ in the White House. When President Bill Clinton took office in January 1993, Hume’s strategy found its intended target.
Hume’s links with Kerry come through his friend and political ally, Dick Spring.
As Minister for Foreign Affairs, and prior to the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, Dick Spring proposed his ‘six democratic principles’ – of which the primacy of Unionist consent was key.
These ‘principles’ were considered a compliment to Hume’s behind the scenes peace strategy at that time; a strategy that would later underpin the Good Friday Agreement. Spring described Hume this week as someone who ‘changed relationships’ and put the north on an international stage.
“John played a very important role in establishing peace on the island of Ireland. One had to admire his energy and dedication, he went the extra mile all the time and I think lesser people would have given up during the dark days. But John persisted as he believed in establishing better relations between the communities in Northern Ireland,” Dick told The Kerryman.
Dick added that John always believed in the idea that you must unite people, not land, and establish principles that people can share.
“John was very conscious of the fact he needed to bring his Unionist colleagues to the table in a spirit of openness, they had to be willing partners. He was fighting battles on all sides: trying to get the IRA to stop its campaign of violence, and at the same time try to reassure Unionists on the principle of consent,” he said.
During the height of the peace process John Hume and Dick Spring often enjoyed a quiet pint together in Tralee.
“John was a very easy person to get on with and good company. The public persona was of a man fighting 24 hours a day for peace. But John liked a sing-song; in fact he broke many an icy room at that time with his easygoing nature.
“He established a very good rapport with some of the Loyalists. They realised they had more in common than not and they could work together. John enjoyed his pint. He loved Derry and loved singing about the town he loved so well.
“I was very sorry for what happened him with his dementia. John really should have been having a lap of honour. Sadly, that wasn’t to be. Great credit goes to Pat and his family. They were a great team who worked together. Pat was as committed to the peace process as John was,” Dick said.
In 1999 Hume was invited by Tánaiste Dick Spring to see the Jennie Johnston in Blennerville. Hume praised the project’s nod to peace and reconciliation on the island.
“John was a fantastic supporter of the Jennie Johnston from the outset,” said John Griffin of Kerry County Council.
“He understood the whole concept of the north/south link. We had young people from both communities working on the project.
“I recall John as always being full of enthusiasm. He understood that to solve problems you had to see the other side’s perspective. It was a very crucial period. John was aware of the historic northern connection between the original ship and the one being built. He was a colossus and I would put him on the same terms as Daniel O’Connell,” John said.
In November, 2000, John and his wife Pat were honoured at a civic reception by Killarney Urban District Council.
UDC Chairman at the time, and former Labour Party member, Seán Counihan, said John ‘was a great man’.
“Meeting John you definitely felt like you were in the presence of someone who had something meaningful to say,” Seán said. He described John as a great supporter of local town councils as democracy at local level was part of Hume’s strategy to minimise Unionist domination in the city of Derry and across the six counties.
“You just knew whatever he said came from the heart. John was a politician that wanted solutions to problems, not just to talk about them,” he said.
Seán continued: “John Hume was for the working people. An awful lot of what he wanted to achieve came from a working class perspective. He realised many of the people dying during the Troubles were from a working class background. My childhood hero growing up was Jim Larkin; I would hold John Hume very much in a similar light, and beyond that in what he achieved for this country.”