The Church Times asked me to write briefly about John Hume who died yesterday. It will take generations to bring Northern Ireland to the point where it is at peace with itself, its painful memories and its history. But the contribution of John Hume and his generation was get to a point where the history and the memories were no longer costing lives. Many of us would regard that as more than we ever expected to see in our lifetimes – John Hume was one of the major figures who make that possible
Never a showy or a band-standing politician – John Hume’s intelligent leadership and dogged persistence were central to Ireland’s long march away from violence and towards peace. The most intractable conflicts across the world are those which feed on a tribal mixture of religion, politics, identity and painful memory. John Hume’s example in Northern Ireland showed that even these conflicts can yield their toxic power to determined and long-term efforts in the cause of peace.
I left school at 18 in Belfast in 1969 as the Troubles were beginning. I was 46 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Through all that time and beyond, John Hume gave hope to my generation that better times might come.
Two of John Hume’s achievements are particularly important.
The first was that he internationalised the conflict. Irish-America, through agencies like Noraid, tended to support a romanticised version of the conflict. John Hume cultivated the friendship and respect of key Irish-Americans like Edward Kennedy and the friendship of Bill Clinton. Their involvement in the movement towards peace was to be of fundamental importance.
The second was the Hume-Adams talks – John Hume’s effort to make a pathway for Sinn Fein and the IRA away from politics through drawing Gerry Adams into talks. He knew that such a process would be messy and that he would be accused of compromise with violence. But he knew and taught us all that, however costly, such processes are absolutely necessary. For John Hume and the SDLP, the cost was the growth of Sinn Fein as a political force which came to eclipse their own party. Such personal and political sacrifice are rare and precious. They were the essence of the political capacity and the spiritual depth of a truly remarkable man