Remembering John Hume: Three Tributes

In our last edition of Tinteán, we suggested that John Hume has claim to be the outstanding Irishman of the 20th century. What you will read below will reinforce that opinion.

A Tribute by George Hegarty

Tributes have been flowing for John Hume from prominent national and international leaders universally praising him as the architect of the process that culminated in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, bringing peace to Northern Ireland after three decades of sectarian bloodshed and destruction.

During all that time he never deviated from, nor apologised for, what some termed his ‘single transferable speech,’ the message of which was that the differences of race, religion or nationality which led to hatred and conflict are accidents of birth which should be respected and celebrated as the essence of humanity. He was fond of saying that ‘political leadership was about changing the language of others – keep repeating your message until your words are repeated back to you’. Many say that was his greatest achievement.

Born in Derry in 1937, John was a proud Derry man. His great-grandfather, Willie Hume, was a Scottish Presbyterian whose skills as a stonemason were much in demand in the construction of railway stations along the various lines being constructed from Derry into Donegal. The children of the marriage, as was dictated by Catholic Church law at the time, were brought up Catholic.

John’s father, Samuel, a riveter, held down a clerical job in the Council and had little time for flag-waving nationalism. He and his wife Anne had seven children – John was the eldest. They lived in Derry’s Glen area which at that time was a mixed suburb – home to both Protestants and Catholics. While he went to Catholic schools, John would most likely have known, and played with, Protestant children.

John recalled walking with his father one evening and coming on a Nationalist election rally in the Glen area. The local member seeking re-election was haranguing the small crowd standing on a flatbed lorry draped in the Irish tricolor. With a firm hand on his son’s shoulder, Sam said: ‘Come away son, pay no heed to all that stuff – you can’t eat a flag.’

John remembered his father, in his copperplate hand, writing letters – often late into the night – for distressed neighbours challenging the Government’s withdrawal of income support payments or rebutting threatening letters from rapacious moneylenders and landlords.

Such childhood connections and influences go some way to explaining his passion for justice, for respecting differences and diversity and, ultimately, paving the way to a peaceful resolution to the sectarian conflict.

The UK 1944 Education Act, reluctantly endorsed by the Northern Ireland Unionist Government in 1947, was a game-changer for poor working class families. It provided secondary school scholarships for all children who passed the 11-plus examination and opened up previously unthinkable and unattainable opportunities.

On scholarship, John went to St Columb’s College in the first year of the scheme’s operation. Seamus Heaney was a contemporary; Phil Coulter and Eamonn McCann would have been there around the same time.

John then entered the Irish Diocesan Seminary at Maynooth taking degrees in French and History but did not finish his clerical studies. His MA thesis was a study of social and economic conditions in Derry 1825-1850. Though the Great Famine was raging towards the end of that period, the sheer numbers of emigrants passing through the port of Derry heading for North America filled him with horror.

Leaving Maynooth he taught French and History, first in Strabane, and then back at St Columb’s. At the same time the economic plight of the city, which had one of the worst unemployment rates in the UK, and the injustices perpetrated on its citizens by a Unionist Corporation gerrymander designed to maintain power, though outnumbered two to one by the Catholic population, continued to obsess him.

To address the poverty and homelessness he saw all about, he set up the Derry Credit Union and, with Father Mulvey, the Derry Housing Authority. He rated his work with the Credit Union as one of his most satisfying achievements and continued his involvement after retiring from politics.

The civil rights marches of the late 1960s were pivotal in John’s political career. These were initially driven by university students frustrated by 40 years of Government injustice and motivated by the ethos of the US civil rights marches and their success in exposing manifest injustices by peaceful means.

Heavy-handed thuggery by members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) meted out to peaceful demonstrators marching in Derry in 1968, witnessed and recorded by world media, ruthlessly exposed the means the Unionist Government was prepared to employ to protect its interests. Within weeks the UK Government, which for 40 years had turned a blind eye to injustice and discrimination in Northern Ireland, was finally forced to act.

John formed the Derry Citizens Action Committee which opposed the Government’s unjust and discriminatory internment policy. His famous 1972 protest march against internment on Magilligan Strand, when he challenged the British army’s right to stop marchers with baton charges and a hail of rubber bullets, was another public relations disaster for the army and the Government and brought John’s media skills to the fore.

Frustration with lack of real progress on the civil rights front led him to the reluctant conclusion that entering politics was the only way to address injustices.

In 1970 he was a founding member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a party which advocated Irish reunification and further devolution of power to Northern Ireland. Up until the Provisional Ceasefire of 1994 the SDLP was the most popular nationalist party.

Elected as an SDLP member to the Northern Ireland Parliament, the UK Parliament and the European Parliament, John had the opportunity to share his grand vision for resolving years of sectarian strife, set out as early as 1964 in an article in the Irish Times.

There were three strands:

  • the need to develop relationships between the two traditions in Northern Ireland ultimately leading to binding agreements, which would
  • be endorsed by referendums held in each part of the island, and
  • be further supported by an over-arching agreement between the Irish and UK Governments.

These strands were to form the basis of the ill-fated 1974 Sunningdale Agreement, the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and ultimately the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

John realised the need to involve the United States in any overall settlement and established links with Senator Ted Kennedy and a group of other influential Irish-American politicians. They opened doors to key US business leaders, thus allowing him to put jobs and economic development on the table as a further incentive for the warring parties to join the peace process.

Adept at the charm offensive and fluent in French, John liked to entertain his prominent US and European guests in style. A favourite haunt was The Railway Tavern, once a railway station built by his great-grandfather in Fahan, a seaside resort on the shores of Lough Swilly about 10 miles north of Derry.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter, in a speech in the White House, stated that a just and lasting solution in Northern Ireland required the support of both Dublin and London. London huffed and puffed over this unwelcome US intervention. Hume’s grand plan, however, was slowly falling into place. It would be a long and tortuous task to lock in all three elements.

In 1994, both sides in the armed conflict finally announced an unconditional ceasefire. International support was immediate: President Clinton congratulated all on choosing the peaceful path and in 1995 made his famous visit to Derry, addressing a huge crowd in the Guildhall Square. Seagate, a big US information technology group, announced plans to open a factory in Derry offering 1,500 skilled jobs.

Success was elusive. It would take another four years of tough negotiation and bargaining before the parties reached consensus. Senator George Mitchell, appointed by President Bill Clinton as the US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, who chaired the multi-party talks, stated recently that, even at the eleventh hour, the whole deal was in imminent danger of collapse.

But succeed it did. John’s grand plan was accepted as the basis of the two-part 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the international agreement signed by Britain and Ireland, and the multi-party agreement. The ensuing referenda were overwhelmingly endorsed by the residents of Northern Ireland (71%) and the Republic of Ireland (94%).

John Hume achieved much in his life. Once he had analysed the problems in his divided community, by recognising the legitimacy of the claims and expectations of both Loyalists and Republicans, and coming up with his brilliant solution, he was single-minded in his determination to have it prevail. US involvement was critical for international acceptance of his grand vision. His peaceful non-violent doctrine made it easier to get powerful political figures on board. Opening up communication lines with the Irish and British Governments was also crucial as were the very unpopular discussions he had with Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein. John’s passionate and relentless quest was rightly recognised by the award of three prestigious peace prizes: the Nobel Peace Prize (1998) – which he shared with David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party; the Martin Luther King Peace Prize (1999); and the Gandhi Peace Prize (2001).

He persevered with his vision despite setback after setback. Many would have given up in despair. He was hospitalised several times for stress; his life was threatened; his house firebombed and regularly daubed with paint.

What kept him going? Stubbornness perhaps; certainly the love, devotion and support of his wife, Pat, and their family, all born and bred in Derry. Politicians from the US, Ireland, Britain and Europe offered regular encouragement and support. And his love of Derry – he never ceased being a proud Derry man. He set up the Derry Credit Union and Derry Housing Authority to help those whom he saw daily struggling with the effects of injustice, discrimination and exploitation. The substantial cheque that came with the Nobel Peace Prize he donated entirely to the Foyle Hospice in Derry, an institution devoted to looking after the terminally ill.

In entertaining his powerful international friends he frequently called on Derry talent. One of his regulars was Phil Coulter who wrote his favourite song. It was fitting therefore that after the requiem mass in Derry’s St Eugene’s Cathedral, his coffin was farewelled down the aisle to the strains of Phil Coulter’s piano rendition of ‘The Town I Loved so well’.

George Hegarty

Born in Derry, was educated at St Columb’s. He came to Australia in the early 1970s, studied Arts/Law at the ANU and worked as a Government lawyer in international trade and administrative law. He and his wife escaped to a farm at Pappinbarra, inland from Port Macquarie, where, in addition to raising sheep and cattle, they are actively involved in the community. They regularly go back to Derry.



A Tribute by Sean Farrell

‘By their Fruits Ye shall know them, applies very much to John Hume. His ‘Fruits,’ his enduring monument, is the Peace which reigns in Northern Ireland which he did so much to bring about. Two years ago at the celebrations to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which cemented the Peace he had striven for, the only major figure missing from the occasion was John Hume, by then sadly already in the dementia twilight. It is equally sad that the coronavirus restrictions robbed him of a fitting funeral.

On that anniversary  I wrote of John’s role over the decades as a monumental and tireless worker for peace and reconciliation. He was there at the outset of the Civil Rights campaign in 1968. He was there through Sunningdale. He it was who conceived and worked at bringing in the benign involvement of Irish American politicians whose role and influence proved so important. He was there during the dark days in the aftermath of the hunger strikes and the relentless violence of the mid- and late-80s. He was the vital element in helping to bring Sinn Fein in from the cold when he undertook the dialogue with Gerry Adams, for which he was widely and unfairly criticised at the time. That dialogue eventually found fruition in the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 with its crucial reference to Britain having ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland,’ a declaration that led some months later to the IRA ceasefire and all that subsequently flowed from it.

Throughout he was consistent. The Irish Times has reprinted an article a young Hume wrote in 1964 – well before the Troubles –  in which he criticised existing traditional nationalist attitudes, called for more involvement in the political process and an acknowledgement that the Unionist tradition in the North was as strong and legitimate as the nationalist one, arguing that the only alternative to accepting the constitutional position was that of Sinn Fein. He suggested also that for progress to be made Unionists had to accept and respond to olive branches the nationalist side might make. Failure to do so and end discrimination could only exacerbate and harden attitudes. Adherence to non-violence and to the recognition of the legitimacy of both traditions was and remained the central tenets of his approach. It was a short step to the concept of the Ireland that he saw begin to emerge as the violence ceased.

He was persistent; he never gave up, despite setbacks. After decades of peace, younger people have little concept of just how grim the situation in the North was during the Troubles. Tribal loyalties were entrenched and strong, particularly on the Unionist side, which produced no major political figure for decades except Paisley, who wielded a wrecking ball through the various attempts at political settlement and compromise. And inevitably violence begat a steadily escalating violence. Marches generated counter demonstrations – and violence. Nationalist rioting provoked a weaponised RUC and drew in the British Army. Rioting intensified. The Provos emerged. The first Army casualty was in February 1971. The violence ground on reaching new heights after the internment of nationalists in August 1971.

The killings on Bloody Sunday during a peaceful civil rights march in Derry were a new low. Bloody Sunday galvanised Nationalists and further polarised the communities. Britain, now directly involved politically, sought, together with the Irish government, a political settlement along the principles advocated by John Hume. The result was the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement and the first attempt at power sharing. It was brought down by a Loyalist strike in 1974.  Violence, alienation and polarisation were now chronic and the next decade was to feature nothing beyond a continuing grisly cycle of violence, with landmark atrocities, ten IRA hunger strikers starving to death, and an effective military stalemate.  It was not a period for optimism. Yet through all this John Hume campaigned on as a voice of moderation, by now the dominant Nationalist politician, an MEP and one continually exploring new possible initiatives to find a solution including international and specifically US involvement.

My limited direct contacts with John were at this stage. As First Secretary in the Irish Embassy in Washington from 1975 to 1977 I got to know John at the beginning of his odyssey to win over top Irish American politicians to influence official US policy on Northern Ireland towards the non-violent approach he was advocating. Indeed he and his wife Pat stayed with us during one of his first visits. He was from the start determined and focussed. He cut an impressive figure to all who met him. Yet it was a formidable task. The IRA had vocal supporters and advocates among the Irish American community, and politicians were initially leery about getting involved. Official US policy was to avoid involvement in the internal affairs of their closest ally, the UK, and institutionally the USA was unsympathetic to Irish nationalism. Yet John persevered, working closely with the Irish Embassy and Irish diplomats. He was extraordinarily successful. Anyone interested should read Maurice Fitzpatrick’s book “John Hume in America.”

By the late 1980’s the Anglo-Irish Agreement had signalled a new departure and era of cooperation between London and Dublin. Yet the violence and polarisation persisted. So too John Hume’s quest for peace. Hence his dialogue with Gerry Adams. He was widely criticised, criticism which hurt. Yet as historian Ronan Fanning remarked to me at the time, “Somebody has to talk to them.”  Those talks contributed vitally to the hard won Peace in the North that eventually emerged. While it involved many people and elements for John Hume above all it was a signal and crowning success .

The debt we owe him is enormous.

Sean is a retired diplomat and a regular contributor to Tintean.



A Poetic Tribute by Michael Boyle

On Magillan’s
beautiful sandy beach
the Para Regiment attacked with barbed wire, barking dogs and rubber bullets.
You went face to face, eyeballed
their Commander about the right to demand one man one vote in one’s own City
and on the following Sunday
the Army shot and killed fourteen innocent men on the streets of Derry.
Taoiseach Jack Lynch said,
‘We will not stand idly by.’ You told him and ‘The Cruiser’ it was much more than just about flags.For half a century only one in five Nationalist men got jobs and their wives worked to the bone while
these broken men gambled drank and walked their dogs alone beside the river Foyle and another generation did the same.You were a pretty good left hand bowler
for the City of Derry
cricket team
and as
of the Candy Stripers team you brought Barcelona and Manchester United football teams to play at our local Brandywell pitch.
Known in Stormont, Westminster, Brussels, Leinster House in and the White House
but  always loved in the town you knew so well.
Long wavy haired teacher with a tweed jacket with your accent you let the world know the people’s misery and despair.
Invited European choirs to sing in The Guildhall and in turn ‘Derry Girls’ sang
in Strasbourg and all over Europe.
Sang the Donegal song ‘Tráthóna Beag Aréir’  on Gay Byrne’s Late Late Show And you loved a creamy pint
in your local Park Bar
within a stones throw
St Eugene’s. For
four hundred years Derry city was
a fortified Tudor outpost-  a walled city of The Planter and shouts of ‘No surrender’
that banished all the natives
to The Bogside to live in shacks with no water and others to survive in creaky infested Nissan huts left behind after the war by the Yanks
Some said you were always a whiner. But did Dublin 4
know or even really care about the second class people with no hope and no vote.
In 1964 you led the charge with others
and spoke out as the only large city in Europe that didn’t have its own university
The fuse
lit on October 5 1968
as all the promises of reform were stifled and came too little and too late.
‘All hell broke loose.’
You never gave up
and worked day and night to try to end the hurt suffering and the killings in Ireland.
You brought jobs
to Derry just when the last factory of the Empire’s shirt capital collapsed.
You were a mighty oak to convince
Gerry Adams to end the IRA violence and like John Lennon ‘Give peace a chance.’
But then the yap dogs came –snapped and clicked
at your heels -from all the Unionists and even a soccer hack at the  Dublin Indo
and some in your own party.
In the future your name will be a trivia stumper as you were a triple Peace winner.
And as that noble man
you gave all our Nobel Prize money
to the long neglected people of Derry
In your long goodbye
you walked with Pat
along the sandy beach
at Moville
and generations will always know you stood against the tide.

Michael Doyle

A native of Derry, Michael lives in St Johns, Newfoundland.