A tribute to John Hume: peace and progressive nationalism
The Bogside, Derry 12/01/2020

The greatest of peacemakers

Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, John Hume.

When I was in down in the Bogside in Derry in early January, I looked up at a mural commemorating these four greatest peacemakers. History is well versed in the lives of the first three and not many of us go through school without learning about their struggles, achievements and the people they liberated. Yet the only person in history to win all three major peace awards- the Nobel Peace Prize, the Gandhi Peace Prize and the MLK Award- was a Derryman.

There’s a common misconception that peace was delivered to Northern Ireland as a nice little gift wrapped up in the Good Friday Agreement; as though a lightbulb flicked on overnight and ended a thirty-year conflict. We forget just how appalling the dark years of the Northern Ireland Conflict, or the Troubles, really were. Living in Northern Ireland today, the legacy of the past and the luxury of the present can sometimes juxtapose in ways that make the peace process seem like it was inevitable, even if it was a long time coming.

Instead, the foundations and the journey to twenty years of relative peace was never guaranteed. It was an arduous, gruelling slog and at times appeared futile and seemed impossible. It’s no exaggeration to say that peace across our islands would have remained an impossibility if not for one man: John Hume.

Like many people across the world, I watched the socially distanced funeral of John Hume live-streamed at home in Belfast. Had we been in normal times, he would have been honoured with a send-off of State proportions, with thousands flocking to Derry (myself included) for surely the biggest funeral in Ireland’s history. Messages of condolence were read to the small congregation ranging from the Clintons, the Pope and the Dalai Lama.

This was a sign that if circumstances had allowed, political and religious leaders; Presidents and Prime Ministers; diplomats and special envoys from across the globe would have descended onto Derry. More importantly to John though, they’d have been among a congregation of the Derry people whose lives he knew, loved and changed. Far from just a respected politician’s farewell, we would have witnessed the world paying homage to the most remarkable of peacemakers.

A progressive nationalist

 “You can’t eat a flag

That was John Hume’s political raison d’être and it came from his father. From an early age, he recognised that the real division between people in his home city of Derry and across Northern Ireland wasn’t really about flags, identity or religion. The societal consequences of early sectarianism were the real injustices: discrimination, poor housing, lack of job prospects, restricted education.

When the Troubles broke out in 1969, Hume was the first to recognise that an armed conflict would do nothing to improve the lives of anybody on either side of the barricades. The armed campaign of the IRA and their political backing by Sinn Féin was anathema to Hume and he condemned their actions with vitriol. He founded the Social Democratic and Labour Party, a moderate Irish nationalist party committed to fighting for a united Ireland through entirely democratic and peaceful means.

To him, it was an irrelevance who you were or where you said your prayers because he understood that everybody on all sides lived with the same fear. Difference was a perception, yet the real threat to each community was not.

Hume’s vision of Irish nationalism was diametrically opposed to the old, militant Republicanism of Sinn Féin and the IRA. This was nationalism with a small ‘n’, recognising from the outset the necessity of respecting difference and embracing the distinct traditions across the island. He wanted inclusivity to overcome sectarianism, where everyone could share a political space with a voice to be heard. His message of a united island, rather than a united Ireland, made it clear that unity didn’t mean a country united, but a people united. Mutual respect for the other had to prevail and change would only come about through consent and agreement.

This outlook of progressive nationalism was a sincere and well-defined vision of a shared island for all the people of Ireland, regardless of political or religious persuasion. That meant fighting against the discrimination of Catholics without ostracising the Protestant community.  An inclusive nationalism that not only recognised but embraced both nationalist and unionist traditions was a vision much deeper than the romantic, Republican dream of reclaiming the ‘Occupied Six Counties’.

Today, nationalism around the world is often seen as a dirty word that means something very different. We think of nationalist views as separatist, self-interested and insular; with nationalist surges often running parallel with the rise of the far-right. The forward-looking nationalism of Hume and the SDLP was about bringing others on-side, helping them onboard, and welcoming them into a new political space. It was clear to him that only agreement would end the conflict and consent would be the key to rebuilding everybody’s greatest desire: peace.

Necessity to compromise

Conflict only ever ends in one of two ways. Either with the complete and absolute victory and defeat of one side over the other, or by reaching a compromise. Much like the nationalism of Hume, his belief that compromise was the optimal solution to a problem sets him apart from today’s leaders.

The 1970s was the bloodiest decade of the Troubles, with over 2,000 people killed by 1979. During these bleak years, he never gave up on a peaceful solution. He used his influence as an MP and MEP to get Westminster and Brussels on his side, and convinced the Carter administration in America to pledge investment to Northern Ireland if a peaceful path to agreement was found. There was nothing revolutionary about his formula for peace and he based success on building “three legs of the stool”: a mechanism for self-determination, improved dialogue between the North and the Republic, and a commitment between the British and Irish governments to work towards nonviolent resolution.

At a time when just the voice of Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, was banned from broadcast, John Hume’s demands for peace were heard loud and clear right across the world. He could stroll into the Élysée Palace, speak in the House of Commons, and be welcomed as a friend into the White House. Even though he hadn’t succeeded with his aims back home, Hume already had the backing of many global leaders. He knew what had to be done and in his mind, it was easy to achieve. The difficulty was getting those who were committed to violence on both sides to lay down their arms and see the inevitability of having to compromise.

It was his secret talks with Gerry Adams that laid the foundations towards the IRA ceasefire in 1994, allowing the breathing space for more open and detailed peace talks between Republican leaders, Northern Irish politicians, and between the British and Irish governments. At great personal and political risk, Hume had succeeded in getting his ‘three legs of the stool’ around the table to talk by the mid-90s.

From these talks emerged one of the finest and most successful peace treaties of modern history-  the Good Friday Agreement. The thirty pages of text signed to mark an end to the Troubles in 1998 bore an uncanny resemblance to the vision that Hume had endeavoured to see since the late-60s. The agreement marked a new era in Anglo-Irish relations and allowed peace to be the reigning champion in Northern Ireland, rather than seeing the victory of either side of the conflict. It’s been said that the Agreement is like a football match where nobody got to win, but everyone gets to score.

“I live in John Hume’s Ireland. The Northern Ireland that I’ve called home for the last few years would not exist without him”

The Good Friday Agreement remains the most sacrosanct of compromises and it’s a shining example to the world of what can be achieved when those who bitterly disagree accept that sometimes, you must compromise. The Northern Ireland Conflict saw around 4,000 people killed and over 50,000 injured across our islands over the course of three decades. It’s a tragedy that the man who architected the Agreement could have engineered the same conclusion decades before— if only everyone else hadn’t needed thirty years of persuading.

His legacy of peace

The past, present and future of Northern Ireland seem to coexist like the Holy Trinity: distinctly separate and somehow indistinguishable. Peace doesn’t always translate into everyday life and it’s misleading to frame Northern Ireland into a false dichotomy of conflict and peace either side of 1998. The deadliest attack of the Troubles, the Omagh bombing, happened after the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Drive a few miles out of Belfast and you’ll pass thirty-foot high steel and concrete ‘peace walls’ topped with barbed wire that mark the interface of Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods.  Nationalist and unionist territory are still blatantly marked out with flags and national colours. Paramilitaries in these areas can still act as judge, jury and executioner and there’s deep mistrust between certain communities and traditions.

Yet in the twenty years since the Good Friday Agreement, peace still prevails. Despite shakes in the foundations, the majority of people are wholly committed to avoiding a return to the past and focus instead on building a shared future based on the principles that John Hume spent his life championing.

I live in John Hume’s Ireland. The Northern Ireland that I’ve called home for the last few years would not exist without him. Peace can seem like an abstract concept; something intangible and permanent by those who’ve always enjoyed it. Peace isn’t something that’s delivered or static, rather a living entity that needs to be nurtured to thrive. Peace has been —and still is— worked damn hard for by everybody here. It’s constantly evolving in more radical and diverse ways and yet it’s never taken for granted.

Peace in my experience of Northern Ireland is not having to keep your guard up every time you go into town. It’s found in the craic of evenings spent in bars and beer gardens, where the biggest fear is the morning after and not the night before. It’s the banter with friends about our differences, asking “where?” with a wry smile when someone mentions Derry or Londonderry. Peace is three years of saved social media stories from nights out and having stories to tell that leave tears running down your leg with laughter. Above all, I’ve been welcomed into a city and a country more at ease with its complex identity, and I’ve made friends who are now more like family. That’s what John Hume’s Ireland is to me. 

As his funeral ended, and his family walked his coffin out of the cathedral, Phil Coulter played The Town I Loved So Well’. He wrote the song in the 70s about his happy childhood in Derry, the pain of seeing the place and people he loved torn apart by conflict, and how he hoped for peace in the future. Coulter and Hume had been friends since school, and it was John’s favourite song. He was known to give regular renditions, whether after family parties or dinners with EU leaders in Brussels. The final lines of the song are a fitting tribute to everything John Hume achieved:

“…They will not forget, but their hearts are set

On tomorrow, and peace once again.

For what’s done is done, and what’s won is won

And what’s lost is lost and gone forever.

I can only pray for a bright, brand new day

In the town I loved so well.”

John Hume delivered that new day. Now it’s down to all of us to finish the work he started to make sure our futures remain bright tomorrow. John Hume was Ireland’s Greatest, a true Irish Patriot, and a proud son of Derry.

John, go raibh míle maith agat, agus inár smaointe go deo.

*If you’d like to learn more about the history of the Northern Ireland Conflict visit:

The BBC’s Troubled Times– ten chapters of the Northern Ireland Troubles from partition to the peace process using archive footage and personal testimony.

The Troubles at 50- a special collection of programmes, documentaries and stories on BBC iPlayer to mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Troubles.