Sam McBride: John Hume demonstrated that resorting to the gun was a choice, not an inevitability

Though his stature and ability were clear from an early stage, John Hume was a leader not universally lauded even within his own party for much of his tenure.

Monday, 3rd August 2020, 9:02 pm
John Hume’s political analysis was eventually accepted by those who had disputed it

In the cavernous vaults of Belfast’s Public Record Office, declassified government files are packed with briefings against him from frustrated party colleagues.

While enjoying access to the most powerful in London, Dublin, Washington and Brussels, he was notoriously secretive with many of those around him in the SDLP, infamously only telling his deputy, Seamus Mallon, at the last moment that he would be the first nationalist deputy First Minister.

But while formerly classified government files show a leader whose style and overwhelming dominance of his party created organisational difficulties, those files are also packed with his ideas which found a lasting home in the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

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John Hume pictured in a BBC studio with Gerry Adams in 1992

Taking the ideology which the African American campaign for civil rights had taken from Ghandi, he did not just oppose violence on moral grounds, but, as his longstanding aide and successor Mark Durkan yesterday said, he viewed non-violence as “an instrument of change”.

Just as John Lewis and Martin Luther King realised that the images of peaceful protesters being attacked by the forces of the state at Selma would undermine the legitimacy of the laws they enforced, so Hume understood that while the forces at Stormont’s command had physical superiority, the footage of policemen beating protesters in Londonderry would undermine the state.

But Hume did not just have a sharper eye for PR than unionist leaders half a century ago. He came to settle on a philosophy which for years seemed to be moribund, but ultimately was largely accepted by all the other major parties.

Mr Durkan yesterday recalled on Talkback how much of unionism and republicanism dismissed the SDLP leader’s political analysis, “but that’s exactly the analysis that everybody came to accept...so the stone that the wreckers had rejected actually became the cornerstone; the Hume analysis became the agenda and that’s because he just steadfastly kept at it.”

That view of a Hume loyalist is backed up by considerable evidence, most notably the text of the Agreement itself.

It is also laid out in an NIO memo from March 1990 which records how much of the eventual architecture of the Agreement was put forward to the Government by Hume in a private meeting eight years before that seminal accord.

The proposals were put forward by Hume at a private meeting between the SDLP leader and Secretary of State Peter Brooke at which, unusually, there were no Government officials present.

A note drawn up from Mr Brooke’s recollection said that Hume set out future devolved institutions in which Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK but with full power-sharing, a north-south ministerial council, and an acceptance that the Republic’s territorial claim to Northern Ireland would be “on the table”.

Two years later, Hume set out to John Major what would be another key feature of the 1998 deal – concurrent referenda on either side of the border.

His support for the EU was in part about bringing about peaceful cross-border harmonisation and was yet another example of where he led and Sinn Féin ultimately U-turned to follow.

He was profoundly disliked by many unionists – and not just for talking with Gerry Adams while the IRA was still engaged in atrocities. Long before that dialogue, Hume had at various points robustly stood up to unionist efforts to scale back his ambition, such as his insistence on the Council of Ireland in the Sunningdale Assembly.

And yet, it was unionism that created Hume the politician. He told RTÉ in the 1990s that as a young man attempting to help build homes to house Catholic families in Londonderry, he came to realise that new housing would be blocked to preserve the gerrymandering of the city by unionist leaders. Hume said: “Up to that I was totally unpolitical. When it came home to me I went out and protested.”

While the Agreement is Hume’s legacy, at a simpler level he will live in history as a powerful contrast to those such as Martin McGuinness who turned to violence. Hume’s achievements showed that was a choice, not an inevitability.

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Alistair Bushe