By Jack Holland
John Hume’s announcement last week that he is resigning from the Northern Ireland assembly did not come as a surprise. Not, anyway, to those who have been aware of the toll that his extraordinary 30-year struggle to bring about a peaceful settlement to his native land has taken on him.
Failing health, and the pressure from his Westminster and European parliamentary roles, finally forced Hume to make what was for him an easy choice. For in letting go of his assembly seat, he is resigning from that aspect of his political life in which he is the least interested — the local, Northern Ireland political stage.
This might seem like a paradox for a man who has in fact devoted his life to the North’s political battles. But for Hume, the Northern Ireland problem was never just a Northern Ireland problem. It was always a problem that he believed could only be understood and resolved if seen in its wider Irish, British and European context. That has always been an essential part of Hume’s vision. Its legacy is the current peace settlement.
In order for visions to be effective, they have to be simple. Hume’s was based on his belief (repeated for 30 years) that "the essence of unity is the acceptance of diversity." In the Northern Ireland context, that had profound implications.
It meant jettisoning the traditional republican/nationalist view of partition as the cause of division. Rather, he argued, partition was the product of a division which already existed within Ireland between nationalists, who wanted a United Ireland, and Unionists, who were determined to resist it. The only way to heal that division, he believed, was first to recognize it, and then begin trying to bridge it by engaging with Unionism in a positive, practical way.
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In his first political speech, in 1959, during a college debate, he argued in favor of Ireland joining what was then known as the Common Market (now the European Union) because it would gradually make the border irrelevant. This was complete heresy to traditional nationalists and republicans, who had erected a huge emotional superstructure on the belief that partition was the root of all evil in Ireland. But for Hume partition was simply the symptom of a problem that would change once the political context was changed.
From very early on, Hume believed that Catholics had to abandon the old, abstentionist tactic, embraced by the Nationalist Party, and engage with the Protestant population. His generation of working-class Catholics were university educated and want an opportunity to play a role in remaking and reforming Northern Ireland.
In 1966, as a 27-year-old teacher of French, he wrote in The Irish Times: "Weak opposition leads to corrupt government. Nationalists in opposition have in no way been constructive . . . leadership has been the comfortable leadership of flags and slogans."
His political career has been a search for a common ground upon which an engagement with Protestants could take place. The first cause he espoused was the campaign to site the new University of Ulster in Derry, instead of Coleraine, as proposed (and subsequently carried out) by the Stormont government. Then came the civil rights movement, which he hoped would recruit forward-looking Protestants in the struggle to rid Northern Ireland’s political and economic structures of their bias against Catholics.
However, the breakdown of law and order and the rise of the Provisional IRA derailed the civil-rights movement and made Hume’s vision unrealizable for a generation or more. It may turn out that the bloody campaign of violence which began in 1969 and lasted for another 25 years will prove to have been no more than a dreadful and bloody historical diversion. For when the peace process began, with the involvement of the IRA, it was on the basis of republicans having accepted that it was necessary to win the consent of Unionists as the basis for any agreement. In other words, it was the message that Hume had been reiterating without fail through the darkest days of the Troubles.
The price Hume paid was high. During the Troubles he was verbally abused and physically attacked by Provisionals because of his message. During his talks with Gerry Adams, which he refused to give up even though the IRA’s violence continued, he was abused and denounced by Unionists, who accused him of lending credit to terrorists. Some in his own party have been critical of his refusal to break with Sinn Fein, and fear that their political rivals have taken advantage of the peace process to try to oust the SDLP as the main voice of nationalism in the North. These fears will certainly increase if, as many suspect, Hume also intends to give up his Westminister seat before the next election, thus offering a tempting opportunity for Sinn Fein in Derry.
But Hume remains first and foremost a visionary, and second a politician. The final irony of his career may well be that by defeating the Provisionals ideologically, he has allowed them the opportunity to reap a political victory that could spell the doom of the party he created.