The Legacy of John Hume

Source: Three Lions/Hulton and Getty Images
Born in Derry/Londonderry in 1937 to a working-class catholic family, Hume became a part of a new class of university-educated Catholics advocating for equal rights in the largely sectarian and gerrymandered state of Northern Ireland.

By Ella Lloyd

Northern Irish politician and former SDLP leader, John Hume died on the 3rd of August 2020 aged 83. 

Born in Derry/Londonderry in 1937 to a working-class Catholic family, Hume became a part of a new class of university-educated Catholics advocating for equal rights in the largely sectarian and gerrymandered state of Northern Ireland. After initially studying for the priesthood, he gained a Master’s degree from the National University of Ireland, before becoming a teacher. In the late 60s, he became involved in the civil rights movement (modelled on its American namesake) advocating for catholic citizen’s rights to votes, homes and jobs in line with protestants. 

Hume is remembered as a true peacemaker; the Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to Northern Ireland after 30 years of brutal conflict was shaped undoubtedly by his vision. Indeed, it was his idea to ratify the agreement on both sides of the border- North, and South. When so many had turned to force, Hume remained committed to nonviolence and diplomacy. In spite of this, he was subject to great criticism for including Sinn Féin politicians in peace talks, as well as the Hume-Adams dialogue. ‘Talking to Terrorists’ as some denounced it, was widely unpopular. However, if an ends ever justified a means, Hume’s means of dialogue with those he disagreed with, and many shunned, justified his ends – peace.

It is a testament to his peacemaking efforts that politicians from all parties have paid respect to him. Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams commended him as ‘a giant in Irish Politics’ despite their multiple disagreements. First Minister of NI and DUP leader, Arlene Foster,  praised his work to ‘promote democratic politics’. Tony Blair, (PM at the time of the GFA signing) expressed his belief that without Hume there may not have been a peace process. 

For his work, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998, alongside unionist David Trimble. Although, he did not become Deputy First Minister in the new power-sharing government as many thought he would. This is perhaps reflective of his oft-quoted words ‘I never thought in terms of being a leader. I thought very simply in terms of helping people’. Hume was not a career politician, something that is all too common nowadays, and he may perhaps remind us that those who enter politics should do so because of a sense of duty and empathy towards their fellow men. 

Society seems to become more and more divided each day, even within political factions there are growing rifts. However, no society could be conceivably more divided than Northern Ireland in Hume’s day. Hume strived to bridge those gaps and reconcile two communities for whom divisions were entrenched in hundreds of years of history and hate. He famously said that ‘difference is the essence of humanity’ and thought that peace and understanding would only be achieved through embracing and accepting these differences and in acknowledging a shared humanity. When we struggle with divisions in our own lives- personally, politically, globally, we may do well to remember Hume’s words. 

At his core, Hume was a Derry man. Nothing more, nothing less. Speaking to the EU after receiving his Nobel Peace Prize in an unaffected accent, his humility is evident. He may serve as a reminder to us that no matter your origins, if you believe in something enough you can achieve it. If you do something because it is good and right, you will be remembered fondly. What’s more – you will not have to sacrifice your principles for it. Possibly what moves people, myself included, so much about Hume is his refusal to stop believing in the common humanity of enemies, and hope for reconciliation, despite the resistance he encountered.

The Greek proverb says that ‘a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in’. Hume passed after a long battle with dementia. It is perhaps one of the greatest cruelties that after he dedicated so much of his life to peace in Northern Ireland, this disease prevented him from seeing his accomplishments. His vision may live on in the people of Derry/Londonderry, who in his later years would walk with him through the city before making sure he got home safely. ‘Helping people’ after all, was his guiding principle. From his work in the Credit Union Movement to the Peace process – he did it because he felt his neighbours, brothers and sisters in Derry/Londonderry deserved better. He campaigned in his early career for Northern Ireland’s second university to be built in its second city- to no avail. His legacy might be honoured in the practice of his values of empathy and tolerance; there have been calls for the Magee Campus of Ulster University to be named after him for example.

The Northern Ireland he built is not perfect, divides still exists and peace is still threatened. The death of Lyra McKee perhaps reflects a resurrection of violent voices of the past. Brexit continues to threaten the GFA. However, Hume’s Northern Ireland was an immeasurable improvement on what had come before it and demonstrated the power of tolerance and understanding. 

He is owed a lifetime’s debt for that, and it should be protected and cultivated for future generations.

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