John Hume, the statesman and peacemaker who has died at the age of 83, was for a time a candidate for the priesthood in Maynooth seminary. He left, and subsequently married Pat Hone, but in the words of his political colleague Seamus Mallon, there was “a tinge of a cleric about him”.
Mallon was referring to Hume’s stoicism; certainly his seminary training gave him a grounding in logic and what he described as “stickability”. His piety was unobtrusive, but as the Bishop of Derry noted at Hume’s funeral, in his last years he always came to morning Mass at St Eugene’s Cathedral and returned there to pray in the evening.
A man’s activities stem from his sense of self. And for Hume his faith meant, among other things, being at the service of others.
John Hume was born on January 18 1937, the eldest of seven children. When he was a boy in Derry people would come to his parents’ home, where his father (a clerk who spent many years unemployed) would help them fill out forms to obtain benefits or apply for jobs. When Hume was 23 he set up the Credit Union in Derry so that people could obtain affordable loans. He was also a teacher, which developed his genius as a communicator.
Hume was, indeed, one of the most eloquent Irish public speakers. He was politically articulate even before the Troubles; in 1964 he wrote in the Irish Times criticising the old Irish nationalism: focusing on territory, not people. In 1968 when nationalists took to the streets, he became one of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement. In 1970 he was, with Gerry Fitt, one of the founders of the SDLP, the party of constitutional nationalism.
Hume was a minister in the short-lived powersharing Stormont administration. In 1983 he became a British Member of Parliament where, in his maiden speech, he criticised the Thatcher government for the shallowness of its claim that Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley and that it would remain British so long as the majority wished it:
“On the face of it, that seems to be a democratic statement and guarantee,” he said. “However, if one looks behind that, one sees that the majority that is being guaranteed was created artificially by a sectarian headcount. When one tells the majority that it can protect itself only by remaining in majority, one invites it to maintain sectarian solidarity as the only means of protection. Therefore, one makes sectarianism the motive force of politics. Northern Ireland has 60 years of elections to demonstrate that is precisely what has happened.”
Throughout the Troubles his political philosophy was remarkably consistent. He had what his detractors called his “single transferable speech” in which he maintained that it was the division of people, not of territory, that mattered; that Protestant loyalist principles were as worthy of respect as nationalist ones, that political and economic development in Northern Ireland were crucial.
He was an early believer in internationalising the problem, in particular by engaging American administrations in the issue; notably President Bill Clinton, who became a friend. American involvement was to be crucial in binding Republicans into the peace process.
From 1988 he talked with Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, who spoke for the IRA. He weathered savage criticism for engaging with the Republican men of violence but as he pointed out, the alternative had not worked. His influence was crucial in the making of the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985 and the IRA ceasefire of 1994.
In 1998 he was one of the participants in the all-party talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement that brought a political settlement to Northern Ireland. Tony Blair, then the British prime minister, observed that “he could reach across the whole political spectrum because he was of his political party, but not constrained by it”. He and the Ulster Unionist David Trimble were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998.
In 2004 he announced that he would retire from active politics. During the last two decades of his life he suffered from advancing dementia. And in his last days the people of Derry kept a watchful eye on him as he walked the streets of the city; he had looked after them and they now looked after him.