Sam McBride: The dignified restraint of John Hume’s funeral was a powerful final act of leadership by those to whom he imparted his values

The strict adherence to public health advice in St Eugene’s Cathedral was itself a powerful act of leadershipThe strict adherence to public health advice in St Eugene’s Cathedral was itself a powerful act of leadership
The strict adherence to public health advice in St Eugene’s Cathedral was itself a powerful act of leadership
Though the modesty of John Hume’s funeral was incommensurate with his political stature, that very fact conveyed a powerful final act of leadership by his party and his family.

The Nobel laureate’s funeral was conducted in the ornate surroundings of St Eugene’s Cathedral, but the occasion was shorn of the pomp which would be expected to accompany the mourning of a statesman.

In front of the altar, the body of the man who famously quoted his father’s words that “you can’t eat a flag” lay in a simple wicker coffin over which no flag was draped.

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But it was the very deliberate and public adherence to the harsh restrictions in place to battle the coronavirus pandemic which spoke more loudly than anything that was said from the lectern.

John Hume's widow Pat speaks to mourners outside St Eugene's Cathedral in Londonderry ahead of the funeral of her husband. Photo: Niall Carson/PA WireJohn Hume's widow Pat speaks to mourners outside St Eugene's Cathedral in Londonderry ahead of the funeral of her husband. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
John Hume's widow Pat speaks to mourners outside St Eugene's Cathedral in Londonderry ahead of the funeral of her husband. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The huge building was sparsely filled with mourners who sat either singly or in family groups.

Almost all of them wore face coverings and there was no congregational singing.

Many of the global dignitaries who would otherwise have attended were not present.

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In what must have entailed extraordinary emotional pain, several of the Hume family did not attend, including Mr Hume’s son Aidan who is in America and could only have been present if he broke the rules on quarantine.

The funeral of John Hume took place in a sparsely-populated St Eugene's Cathedral in Londonderry. Photo: Stephen Latimer/PA WireThe funeral of John Hume took place in a sparsely-populated St Eugene's Cathedral in Londonderry. Photo: Stephen Latimer/PA Wire
The funeral of John Hume took place in a sparsely-populated St Eugene's Cathedral in Londonderry. Photo: Stephen Latimer/PA Wire

And, at the request of the Hume family, the streets were not thronged with the many thousands who would otherwise have come to pay their respects to a man who has in recent days been spoken of as a modern day O’Connell or Parnell.

By quirk of fate, Mr Hume’s funeral took place on the same day – August 5 – as that of Daniel O’Connell, the liberator, 173 years earlier.

But whereas Pope Pius IX held a two-day commemoration for O’Connell in Rome, where his heart stayed while his body was interred in Glasnevin Cemetery after Dublin coming to a standstill as tens of thousands lined the streets, Mr Hume’s funeral was one of striking simplicity.

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Speaking on Talkback in the aftermath of Mr Hume’s funeral, the former SDLP leader’s longstanding friend Denis Bradley described it as “a deeper memorial because it was so personal” and “more powerful because of the clutter of celebrity not being present”.

Mourners sat singly or in family groups. Photo: Stephen Latimer/PA WireMourners sat singly or in family groups. Photo: Stephen Latimer/PA Wire
Mourners sat singly or in family groups. Photo: Stephen Latimer/PA Wire

But the most powerful aspect of the occasion was the selfless public spirited reason for that simplicity – a respect for the guidance in place to save life.

There was an unmistakable contrast with the actions of so many senior Sinn Féin figures who just a month ago flagrantly disregarded the rules and guidance which they had asked the public to respect while attending the huge funeral for former IRA intelligence chief Bobby Storey. Their argument for doing so – that Mr Storey had been a hugely significant republican leader – demonstrably could have been made by the SDLP or the Hume family.

That they never even attempted to do so, and in fact did the opposite by asking people to stay away, spoke eloquently of their values, as was the fact that while many of those who knew Mr Hume well could not be in the cathedral, space was found for those who in their diversity symbolically represented the ideological outlook of the key architect of the Belfast Agreement – Arlene Foster, Michelle O’Neill, Naomi Long, the US consul general and others.

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Due to the cruel ravages of dementia, Mr Hume’s sharp mind had slowly died long before the pandemic struck and so clearly he did not make the decisions about what happened in circumstances impossible to have anticipated.

But in the tribute paid by John Hume Jr to his father, he said that both he and his mother Pat had suffused their children with their values.

Those values were evident in the dignity and painful restraint of the funeral service.

In her Irish Times obituary of John Hume, Fionnuala O’Connor wrote: “There may never be another leader who captures the hopes of northern Catholics across the widest range and shows them to the world in the best possible light, as he did for 30 years”.

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Today’s final act of leadership in the form that Mr Hume’s funeral took not only showed the SDLP co-founder to the world in the best possible light but was a potent final testament to his respect for others.

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