Derry was in mourning this week when the news broke of the death of one of its greatest sons. Nobel peace laureate John Hume died at Owen Mór nursing home in the city after suffering dementia for some years. He was 83 years old.
In a statement, his family announced that he died in the early hours of Monday August 3 2020 following a short illness. ‘John was a husband, a father, a grandfather, a great grandfather and a brother’, the statement read. ‘He was very much loved, and his loss will be deeply felt by all his extended family’.
We shall overcome
The statement went on to say: ‘It seems particularly apt for these strange and fearful days to remember the phrase that gave hope to John and so many of us through dark times: we shall overcome’.
Good Friday Agreement
The former leader and co-founder of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) was one of the key architects of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The agreement, between nationalists and unionists, brought relative peace to the Northern Irish conflict. He was always an advocate of non-violence.
Tributes started to pour in from around the world from everyone from colleagues and friends to political opponents, presidents and prime ministers. Current SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MP said: “John Hume was our Martin Luther King. He was the greatest Irishman ever and achieved something that no-one could ever achieve before him. He ended the Anglo-Irish conflict that had gone on for 800 years”. Former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said that “we wouldn’t have the peace that we have today if it wasn’t for John Hume”.
Joint winner Trimble
Former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who won the Nobel Peace Prize with Hume in 1998 said: “Even before he played such a vital role in securing the Belfast agreement, from the outset of his career John was firmly committed to peaceful means and opposed the efforts of other people to achieve their objectives through violence. Those who thought they could win using violence could not succeed and eventually realised that they had to come into the political process as John had long argued.”
The former US president Bill Clinton released a joint statement with his wife Hillary paying tribute to “our friend” who “fought his long war for peace in Northern Ireland”.
“His chosen weapon: an unshakeable commitment to non-violence, persistence, kindness and love. With his enduring sense of honour he kept marching on against all odds towards a brighter future for all the children of Northern Ireland.”
The statement added: “His legacy will live on in every generation of Northern Ireland’s young people who make John’s choice to live free of the hatred and horror of sectarian violence.”
Former British prime minister Tony Blair said Hume was a “political titan and a visionary”. He continued: “His contribution to peace in Northern Ireland was epic and he will rightly be remembered for it. He was insistent it was possible, tireless in pursuit of it and endlessly creative in seeking ways of making it happen.”
Hero and peacemaker
Irish taoiseach Micheál Martin described Hume as “a great hero and a true peacemaker”.
“Throughout his long life he exhibited not just courage, but also fortitude, creativity and an utter conviction that democracy and human rights must define any modern society. During the darkest days of paramilitary terrorism and sectarian strife, he kept hope alive. And with patience, resilience and unswerving commitment, he triumphed and delivered a victory for peace”, he said.
Born into a working class Catholic family in Derry in 1937, John Hume attended St Columb’s college. Football and cricket were among the sports he enjoyed. He went on to study at Maynooth to become a priest however did not complete his clerical studies. He would later become a history teacher at his former school.
Hume was a founding member of the credit union movement in Derry. He once said that of “all the things I’ve been doing, it’s the thing I’m proudest of because no movement has done more good for the people of Ireland, north and south, than the credit union movement.” He was also instrumental in the University for Derry Committee in 1965.
Hume became a leading figure in the civil rights movement in the late 1960s. This was at a time in the city when the minority protestant-run council controlled everything from jobs and housing to votes. Catholics were heavily discriminated against in all aspects of life. The civil rights movement took its inspiration from the black civil rights movement in the United States.
Mr Hume became an independent nationalist member of the Stormont government in 1969. He was a founding member of the SDLP in 1970 and became its leader in 1979. During the 1980s he was involved in talks between the British government and Sinn Féin. He was elected MP for the new Foyle constituency in 1983. In 1985 the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed. A fluent French speaker, he was also a Member of the European Parliament (MEP).
In 1988 Hume began a series of talks with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. He was widely vilified for this however he continued and these talks led to the IRA ceasefire in 1994. The signing of the Good Friday Agreement would occur in 1998 and a powersharing government was set up at Stormont. Hume retired from politics in 2004.
John Hume was hugely instrumental in bringing investment to Northern Ireland and Derry in particular. Companies like Seagate set up in Derry and still employ thousands of people there. He was very influential in both Europe and the United States.
The Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 was among many awards that John Hume was to receive in his lifetime. He was also a recipient of the Gandhi Peace Prize and the Martin Luther King Award – the only person to have been honoured with all three. Pope Benedict XVI named him a Knight Commander of the Papal Order of St Gregory the Great in 2012 and he was voted ‘Ireland’s Greatest’ in a public poll by RTE in 2010.
John Hume’s funeral mass took place on Wednesday at St Eugene’s Cathedral in Derry. Because of Covid-19 restrictions, numbers were limited. The family had asked people to stay at home and light candles for peace in their homes the previous evening. One of John’s sons was unable to attend as he was in Boston but a daughter read a poem on his behalf. Dignitaries in attendance included the Irish president, Michael D. Higgins, the joint first ministers of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill and the taoiseach, Micheál Martin. Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown read out messages on behalf of Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama and former US president, Bill Clinton. Mr Hume was then taken to his final resting place in the city cemetery for a family service to the air of The Town I Loved So Well played by his friend, Phil Coulter.
As a mark of respect for Mr Hume, both the England and Ireland cricket teams wore black armbands at their game the evening before his burial. Ireland won the match incidentally. Derry City FC, of which Mr Hume was president, wore black for their 2-0 victory over St Patrick’s Athletic on Monday evening. There was also a minute’s silence before the game. John Hume is survived by his wife Pat and their five children and grandchildren.