Recognised as being the mind behind some of the most substantial political developments in late twentieth century Northern Ireland, John Hume is not only regarded as an architect of the Northern Ireland peace process, but is widely considered one the most vital figures in modern Irish history.
On what would have been his 84th birthday, Babylon looks back at how Hume helped broker the Good Friday Agreement (Belfast Agreement), which not only brought the Troubles to an end, but brought about a peace once thought of as an inconceivable prospect on the island of Ireland.
A native of county Derry whose political career spanned over 30 years, Hume rose to prominence in the late 1960s as part of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, which served as an immediate backdrop to the Troubles.
Elected to the Northern Ireland parliament in 1969, Hume’s early career was defined by replacing the institutions of Northern Ireland, which would address the grievances of the Catholic population, such as gerrymandering and job discrimination.
This period culminated in Hume co-founding the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in 1970 and in the short-lived Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, the latter of which closely resembled the form the Good Friday Agreement would take.
An advocate of non-violence, similar to his American contemporary, Martin Luther King Jr., Hume’s intentions and vision for Northern Ireland made clear early on in his career, which remained unwaveringly consistent while he was in politics. The only change to his political approach over time was how much emphasis he placed on the various tenets he had for his vision for Northern Ireland.
Despite being a nationalist, Hume believed Irish unification could only happen with the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. However, given the political and social turmoil brought about by Bloody Sunday (1972) and the pub bombings of Birmingham and Guildford (1974), Hume gradually placed more emphasis on uniting communities rather than reuniting the island of Ireland, looking towards postwar European unity as a source of inspiration, especially once he became an MEP in 1979.
John Hume addressing a Catholic meeting held at the Celtic Park football ground in Derry, 1969. Source: Getty Images
Side-stepping the troubles of negotiation
In spite of the strained and often confrontational relationships each of the parties of the Troubles had with each other, Hume had a natural ability to communicate with all of them while, at the same time, managing to stay on good terms with them all.
As the Leader of the SDLP (1979-2001), an MP for Foyle in Westminster (1983-2005), and an MEP at the European Parliament (1979-2004), Hume utilised his channels to cast a light on the conflicts in Northern Ireland, helping to bring the Troubles to the international stage, often at his own personal risk, while facing occasional criticism from within the SDLP.
The New Ireland Forum (1983-84) was critical in providing a platform for constitutional nationalists throughout the island of Ireland to discuss how the cause of Irish nationalism could be progressed.
With the hunger strikes and the election of Bobby Sands, among other incidents of the early 1980s keeping tensions between Nationalists and Unionists high, Hume prioritised bringing about a ceasefire, regardless of the cost to himself, or that of the SDLP, so that there could be at least an opportunity to for both sides to come to an agreement.
While the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 would not prove to have a lasting impact in ending the political violence in Northern Ireland, it was a vital step in building co-operation between the British and Irish governments.
The negotiations of the agreement also saw an intervention by then-US President Ronald Reagan, which was an early indication of Hume’s visits to the United States in search of support to help end the Troubles being successful. This success would later be more pronounced when American politician Ted Kennedy and US President Bill Clinton became major supporters of the emerging peace process following the Downing Street Declaration of 1993.
Hume’s overall strategy was aimed at building a consensus among the Irish in Ireland and America, while simultaneously building relations with the then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and attempting to keep the door open so that talks with Unionists in Northern Ireland would happen.
Hume was also interested in having Sinn Féin as part of any talks. His talks with Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams in the late 1980’s saw Hume, among others, face strong criticism from both inside and outside the SDLP, and Hume even received death threats from Loyalists.
Following renewed talks between Adams and Hume, the Sinn Féin leader carried the coffin of IRA bomber Thomas Begley, who died along with 9 other people in the Shankill Road bombing of October 1993, leading to intense criticism of both Hume and Adams, and incited violence in the aftermath of the bombing.
Hume’s ability to maintain good relations with the political parties in the Republic of Ireland also contributed in bringing about the notion of a peace process. Following direct rule from Westminster in 1972, Hume’s involvement in bringing about the Sunningdale Agreement helped to establish relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic by attempting to establish a Council of Ireland, a statutory body originally established in 1920 under the Government of Ireland Act, but was abolished in 1925.
A fragile yet priceless peace
Following the Downing Street Declaration, the following four and a half years would be filled with uncertainty, with two IRA ceasefires interspersed with incidents such as the Manchester and London Docklands bombings (both 1996) and the Northern Ireland riots (1997).
However, the intervening years were relatively peaceful by comparison to the violence seen in the 1970s, and it allowed for the efforts which Hume had spent his entire political career working towards leading to substantial all-party talks in October 1997, which culminated when the Good Friday Agreement was signed on 10 April 1998.
However, even with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement by both the British and Irish governments, and being passed by referendums on both sides of the border weeks later, the priceless peace Hume helped to broker was still fragile.
The Omagh bombing of August 1998 was proof of it, which despite occurring six months after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, became the last, and deadliest incident of the Troubles, and a stark reminder of the dangerous reality which would come if Northern Ireland were to return to violence.
John Hume, seen alongside Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble. Both were awared the Nobel Peace Prize following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Source: Alan Lewis, Photopress
Hume’s final years in politics were defined by helping with the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and the running of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, which he had helped to bring about. Hume gradually stepped away from politics in the early 2000s due to ill health, and formally retired in 2004.
Hume became the recipient of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize, which was shared with then-leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble. Other accolades included the 2001 Gandhi Peace Prize and the Martin Luther King Award. As of 2021, Hume remains the sole recipient of all three major peace awards.
Hume’s restlessness in his efforts to achieve peace in Northern Ireland was praised from across the political divide upon his resignation as SDLP leader in 2001. Even the then-leader of the DUP, Rev. Ian Paisley, expressed his respect for his long-time political opponent, calling him “the real life of the SDLP”.
Hume’s ability to project his political message on an international scale, build alliances, and to bring the various different strands of the peace process together, were vital in not only helping to internationalise the Troubles as a political issue, but in turning the peace process into a legitimate cause, which took into account the delicate history on both sides of the divide.
However, the most enduring example of the peace Hume helped broker was seen throughout the Brexit withdrawal process. Despite widespread concerns a hard border might be reimposed on the island of Ireland, the common fear amongst both unionists and nationalists was the possible return of the Troubles.
The fact that both sides, Nationalists and Unionists alike, shared concern about the fragile peace birthed from the Good Friday Agreement was ever considered to be under threat, exemplified the progress which has been made in the communities of Northern Ireland in the two decades since, and may be the greatest legacy John Hume left behind.
Hume died on 3 August 2020 at the age of 83.
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