Category: Archive

Editorial Hume’s legacy

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

It is always a tricky business predicting how history will view any given politician. But with the case of John Hume, we can safely assume that 50 years from now, history’s evaluation of his status will not be substantially different from how most of his contemporaries see him: as one of the most influential political figures in Ireland in the 20th century.

His decision, announced last week, that he is resigning from the Northern Ireland Assembly, has provided an opportunity for an assessment of his status. What was remarkable about the assessments so far is the absence of any real or coherent criticism of his role in the North’s 30 turbulent years. Of what other contemporary politician can it be said that those who were among his most virulent critics are now most beholding to him? Yet, as far as the IRA and Sinn Fein are concerned, that is the simple truth. They have adopted his rhetoric and his analysis of the problem and what has to be done to solve it.

Only the Unionists still have a bone to pick with him. They will never forgive him for what they see as his deliberate undermining of the Brooke-Mayhew talks in 1991, when an attempt was made to piece together a coalition of the moderate political parties as a way out of the impasse. Hume downplayed his party’s role in the process, concentrating instead on the secret talks with Sinn Fein leaders. It was a move about which many Unionists still feel bitter. But it was one that most people in Ireland now see as having made the current peace process possible. Without it, there would have been no IRA cease-fire, and without that there would have been no hope of a settlement. For Hume, it was a gamble, for which he paid dearly, psychologically and physically.

His battle was a long and incredibly difficult one. From the start, it was based on an insistence that violence was wrong and counterproductive. Many other political figures in Ireland’s recent history have argued the same thing. But none were confronted with a campaign of violence that lasted 30 years — the longest and most sustained campaign in Irish history in the last 200 years. Still, at the end of it, Hume was still standing, making the same case that he first started making in the late 1960s: the need to engage with Unionists and accept that partition is a product of divisions, not the cause of them. The IRA and Sinn Fein eventually concluded that he was right. It is on that basis that they are now part of the peace process and the government of Northern Ireland.

Hume has not retired from the political stage. Far from it. He still functions as a Westminster MP and a Euro MP. But his resignation from the Assembly is almost certainly the beginning of his withdrawal from British politics. His heart remains in Europe, in which he finds the broader context necessary for seeing Ireland’s troubles in perspective. It provided him with a vision of the future, which, thanks to his courage, he has helped to bring about.

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