David Trimble urges unionism to recognise John Hume’s positive role

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As tributes were paid to John Hume from around the world yesterday, Lord Trimble said that unionism should recognise the positive contribution which the former SDLP leader made to Northern Ireland.

Mr Hume, who died yesterday morning, was praised by Lord Trimble – the former UUP leader with whom he negotiated the 1998 Belfast Agreement and then jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize – for having been resolutely opposed to violence.

For many years the 83-year-old former MP, MEP and MLA had dementia and was being cared for in the Owen Mor nursing home in his beloved native city of Londonderry, where he passed away.

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Colum Eastwood, who ultimately succeeded Mr Hume both at the helm of the party Mr Hume helped found and as Foyle MP, described his hero as “20th century Ireland’s most significant and consequential political figure”.

Respectful tributes have been paid to former SDLP leader John Hume from unionists, nationalists, world leaders and othersRespectful tributes have been paid to former SDLP leader John Hume from unionists, nationalists, world leaders and others
Respectful tributes have been paid to former SDLP leader John Hume from unionists, nationalists, world leaders and others

He said that the former civil rights activist “will always find a home amongst the pantheon of great Irish leaders and it is only right and natural that he will now be spoken of in the very same breath as O’Connell and Parnell”.

Former US President Bill Clinton said that Mr Hume had “fought his long war for peace” with the weapons of “an unshakeable commitment to non-violence, persistence, kindness and love”.

Mr Hume’s death comes just six months after that of fellow Good Friday architect and long-time SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon, a man with whom he had a complicated and at times tempestuous relationship.

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The former SDLP leader’s passing was announced yesterday morning in a statement from his family who said that he had died after “a short illness”.

They thanked the “exceptional” staff at Owen Mor nursing home and “the people of Derry and Moville/Greencastle, who have looked after John and shown us so much kindness as his dementia has progressed. Celebrating community in all its diversity went to the heart of John’s political ethos and we are very appreciative that our communities supported, respected and protected John.”

The family said that Mr Hume’s funeral would be “arranged according to the current government regulations with very strict rules on numbers”, meaning that “many will be unable to join us” and so a later memorial service would be held.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the former SDLP leader as a “political giant”, while Taoiseach Micheal Martin said he was a “great hero and a true peacemaker”.

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First Minister Arlene Foster described the man who led the SDLP for 22 years as “a giant figure in Irish nationalism, but also in the wider life of Northern Ireland”.

She said that “even those of us who will have differed in our constitutional preference cannot fail to have admired and respected his drive and desire for a better future”.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said that Mr Hume was “a hugely important figure in our political history and a driving force in the Good Friday Agreement”.

Former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said: “His decision to meet with me in September 1986, following an invitation from Fr Alex Reid, was a breakthrough moment in Irish politics.”

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Lord Trimble said that he still viewed the Hume-Adams talks – which enraged not just most unionists, but also some senior SDLP figures – as “misconceived” and something which “appears – although one can’t be sure of it, because we don’t know exactly what was said [as] an attempt to bypass the democratic process”.

However, he said there was a “positive outcome in that the governments took over”, putting in place a framework for negotiations which would ultimately see republicans accept huge ideological changes such as the principle of consent.

He said that when the violence which became the Troubles began and as Mr Hume was leading marches for civil rights, most unionists “would have viewed this as a policing issue” and wanted the authorities “to suppress this civil disorder”.

He added: “It wasn’t until later that people began to see that that was not an adequate explanation of the problems.”

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Lord Trimble went on: “One thing that you have to give him credit for is that he very clearly set his face against violence, right from the very outset...Hume was very clear, right from the outset, that violence was not the way of solving problems.”

Lord Trimble said that Mr Hume had “limitations”, especially in that “he was a west bank [of the Foyle] nationalist who had very little contact with unionism - very little contact with unionism or Protestantism. He did not understand [them].”

However, referring to the lessons which today’s leaders could learn from Mr Hume, Lord Trimble said: “One goes back to the very clear commitment to peaceful means, and to a democratic process.

“He used a lot of words about the situation, but basically it comes down to something that’s founded on the democratic process and that’s a positive thing.

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“It would be a mistake for unionism today, in the aftermath of Hume’s death, to be anything other than recognising his positive contribution.”

Yesterday there were warm tributes from across the political spectrum.

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken said: “John Hume’s huge contribution to political life in Northern Ireland is unarguable, even by those who would have regarded themselves as political opponents.

“Throughout the long dark decades of the Troubles, John Hume consistently offered constitutionalism nationalism, a peaceful alternative to the violent republicanism of the IRA, which he recognised was utterly futile.”

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Alliance leader Naomi Long said: “Without the hard work and sacrifice of people like John Hume, we would not live in the Northern Ireland we do today.”

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair said Mr Hume was a “political titan” and “a visionary who refused to believe the future had to be the same as the past”.

His predecessor, Sir John Major, said: “Few others invested such time and energy to this search and few sought to change entrenched attitudes with such fierce determination.”

He added: “He has earned himself an honoured place in Irish history.”

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Irish President Michael D Higgins said Mr Hume had transformed and remodelled politics in Ireland.

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Alistair Bushe