“Over the years, the barriers of the past—the distrust and prejudices of the past—will be eroded, and a new society will evolve, a new Ireland based on agreement and respect for difference.” – John Hume.
John Hume, aged 83, died this week and his tremendous efforts in the fight for salvaging peace in Ireland will remain unforgotten. He was one of the primary architects of the Good Friday Agreement, as well as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 for his peace-making efforts. Hume received an array of acclamations and awards throughout his lifetime, including the Gandhi Peace Prize and the Martin Luther King Award, being the only recipient of the three major peace awards. He has been described as “the man who built peace” and devoted his life towards a stable, more peaceful Ireland.
The IRA called a ceasefire in August 1994, and this decision was greeted with both relief and jubilation across Northern Ireland. Many people were involved in this process, but the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) leader’s role was imperative. “Politics” he once said, “is the alternative to war.” Hume’s involvement in the cauldron of Northern Irish politics began in his home city of Derry, where he was born in 1937. Before entering politics, he could obtain a scholarship to a local grammar school thanks to post-war education reforms. He also trained briefly for the priesthood but later returned to work as a teacher. Hume was passionate about several issues, prompting him to campaign across Derry for fair housing, and helped create a credit union in the city. At that time, the nationalist was the majority in Derry, yet the council was controlled by unionists. The reformation of such was one of the key appeals in the civil rights movement. Growing up in Derry meant that Hume was a first-hand witness to the earliest confrontations and had to experience the transition from peaceful protesting to violent alterations on the streets. As the unrest in Northern Ireland worsened, Hume joined other constitutional nationalists to find the SDLP. The main objective of the party was to achieve a united Ireland – but through peaceful, consensual means.
The introduction of internment without trial occurred in 1971, which lead to greater tensions within Northern Ireland. During a march from an army camp which detained internees, Hume became the voice of the people. “Are you proud of the way your men have treated these people?” Hume became a canon for peaceful methods, and his influence continued to grow. His leadership was crucial in initiatives such as the Sunningdale Agreement, which established a short-lived power-sharing assembly of both unionists and nationalists. He was elected as the MP for Foyle in 1983, and also regarded as a member of the European Parliament. His influence managed to reach across the pond, as he had positive relationships with both Bill Clinton and Teddy Kennedy. Hume was not afraid to take risks in order to strive for peace, and one of his more criticised decisions, to the dismay of unionists, was his direct talks with Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams. This meeting was historic, as it enabled the path for the Downing Street declaration, as well as influencing the IRA ceasefire.
There are only good words used when remembering John Hume. Irish Taoiseach Michael Martin described him as a “great hero and true peacemaker.” He went on to say: “Throughout his long life he exhibited not just courage, but also fortitude, creativity and an utter conviction that democracy and human rights must define any modern society.” Hume’s legacy will remain intact, as today’s generations must continue his fight for peace with patience, commitment, and unswerving resilience.