On John Hume

Daniel Finn

The death of a notable figure is often a time for selective amnesia. Michael Gove is the Conservative politician with the keenest interest in Northern Irish affairs – a dubious blessing for the people of the region. After John Hume died on 3 August, Gove paid tribute to the Derry politician as ‘a man of great integrity and wisdom who stood against violence and for peace with courage and steadfastness’.

You get a very different impression from Gove’s 2000 pamphlet denouncing the Good Friday Agreement, the principal fruit of Hume’s political labours. Gove compared the British government’s policy of engagement with Sinn Féin to the appeasement of Nazi Germany, and accused Hume of undermining confidence in the Royal Ulster Constabulary:

It is true that the RUC has encountered problems in recruiting Catholic officers. But the reason for that is nothing to do with institutionalised prejudice and almost everything to do with the IRA policy of targeting Catholic RUC officers as ‘traitors’ and the refusal of moderate nationalist politicians such as John Hume to encourage their constituents to join the RUC.

Gerry Adams acknowledged that he and Hume had had ‘many disagreements’, but preferred to concentrate on the dialogue they’d held in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which played a crucial role in the genesis of the GFA. To get a proper measure of how far Adams had to shift to make the GFA possible, we need to look more closely at the nature of those ‘disagreements’.

For years, supporters of Sinn Féin and the IRA derided Hume’s Social Democratic and Labour Party as cowardly enablers of British imperialism – the ‘Stoop Down Low Party’. The public discussions between Sinn Féin and the SDLP in 1988 had a more constructive tone, but the basic positions of the two parties were irreconcilable, as Sinn Féin made clear:

Our struggle and strategy has been to close down each option open to the British until they have no other option but to withdraw. The SDLP – with the conditions of power-sharing and a variable ‘Irish dimension’ – have continually given the British succour and allowed them to believe that an internal arrangement may be possible.

After the 1988 talks broke down without agreement, Hume denounced the IRA as ‘fascists’ at the SDLP conference, while Gerry Adams railed against ‘so-called constitutional nationalists’ who were ‘prepared to accept the legitimacy of the state so long as the section of the Catholic population whose interests they represent are incorporated into it’.

Yet it wasn’t long before Hume and Adams resumed their discussions, in private this time, with the Irish government also discreetly involved in the lengthy exchange of documents that became known as ‘Hume-Adams’. Reading over the drafts, which fed directly into the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993, you can see the Sinn Féin leadership gradually shift towards Hume’s understanding of a peace settlement: there would be no British withdrawal without majority support in Northern Ireland. Having derided power-sharing and ‘internal arrangements’ for so long, Sinn Féin ended up stealing the clothes of its negotiating partners after accepting the terms of the GFA in 1998, with no guarantee of Irish unity at the end of the line.

To make that possible, Hume had to run the gauntlet of vituperation, not only from leading Unionists but also from much of the Irish media. After the Shankill Road bombing of 1993, the Sunday Independent, Dublin’s bestselling newspaper, devoted page after page to attacks on Hume, ‘the main obstacle to any hopes of reconciliation’, ‘clearly intent on sucking us into an immoral relationship with active terrorists’, whose dialogue with Gerry Adams was ‘only making peace more difficult to find’. Hume briefly collapsed under the strain.

Personal recognition for his efforts came with the joint award of the Nobel Peace Prize with the Unionist leader David Trimble in 1998. You might have expected Hume to relish the opportunity to exercise political power, after decades of enforced abstention; instead, he made way for his deputy, Seamus Mallon, who became deputy first minister in the new power-sharing administration. Hume stood down as SDLP leader in 2001, the year Sinn Féin overtook his party for the first time in the UK general election. Over the next decade and a half, Sinn Féin decisively supplanted the SDLP as the dominant nationalist party: its average vote in the last three Northern Ireland Assembly elections was twice the SDLP’s.

Many observers have pointed to that reversal of political fortunes as an irony – and an injustice – of the peace process: having worked so hard to bring Sinn Féin in from the cold, Hume and his party had to watch them reap the political benefits. But there was always a peculiar co-dependency between the two organisations, even at the height of their animosity in the early 1980s. Although Hume was unquestionably a very talented and hardworking politician, his international reputation as the ‘Statesman of the Troubles’ relied on the context of a long-running conflict.

The British and Irish governments needed an interlocutor in Northern Ireland’s nationalist community who was staunchly opposed to the IRA campaign, and Irish-American politicians such as Edward Kennedy and Tip O’Neill needed a guide through the choppy waters of the Troubles (not least when some of their own constituents pressured them to support the IRA). It was the SDLP’s indispensable role as an alternative to more radical and uncompromising forces that gave Hume his entry into official circles in Dublin and London, Brussels and Washington. In turn, it was the concessions secured by the SDLP and the Irish government, from the Sunningdale Agreement of the 1970s to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of the following decade, that prevented Sinn Féin and the IRA from winning the support they needed to achieve their goals.

By the early 1990s, the Provisionals were boxed in, and Hume had the good sense to offer them a dignified way out of their corner, when the likes of Gove and the Sunday Independent would have preferred to bait them and demand unconditional surrender. In a way, it was a fitting outcome for the Provisionals to take up long-term residency in a house that Hume built, having pledged for so long to tear it down.


  • 13 August 2020 at 4:46pm
    Paula O'Hare says:
    "...his international reputation ... relied on ... a long running conflict".

    Oh unfair. Even without conflict Northern Ireland would still have needed a civil rights movement, exposure to the light and air of the European Union, American interest and money, and local credit unions. John Hume, working in those fields, would have been an exceptional human being, and politician, to a level of world recognition, in any alternate universe you care to imagine.

    Let's put that criticism back where Benedict Kiely placed it, in Proxopera in 1977:
    "Fight the Brits, says Binchy Two, to the last Catholic shop in the village of Belleek or the town of Strabane. Man, you love the Brits, you couldn’t exist without them. "

    • 13 August 2020 at 11:34pm
      gehuts says: @ Paula O'Hare
      If I understand your arguement from the reading of Keily, it is along the lines of "imagine trying to survive in Northern Ireland without the 'Brits Subsidy', on the seeming assumption that NI had, and has, to be in it present configuration, and will need subsidy in perpituity whatever, by whoever. The economic history of Ireland shows distortions created by imperial and acendancy interests, which lead to the pitiable state of affairs in both parts if the island.
      The NICRA was established by radicals, mostly from a protestant background, with the milieu from which Hume (and many other 'leading lights) came (represented by the dicredited Nationalist Party), nowhere to be seen. They soon jumped on the bandwagon - until it was buried by Paisleyites and the utraleft.
      As for international perspectives, as one of the early civil rights organisers remarked that, Hume was a "good man fallen among Europeans". However misguided it might be considered that Hume was, the situation in NI vindicated the story.
      So the only part to which Finn has not given due weight and credit was Hume's resilience in the face of opposition - exemplified by Mallon - to the course that was the only alternative to the status quo stalemate.