It was no surprise when John Hume received Nobel recognition last week. It was more of a sense of relief, since over the years the only question regarding Hume and the award has been why it has taken the Nobel committee so long to choose him.
There is probably no one in the world, outside the Troglodyte fringes of Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and their more polite exponents in the UK Unionist Party, who would challenge the recognition accorded to Hume. But more than a few eyebrows were raised when Hume’s companion in the award was named as David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader and designated first minister in the new Northern Ireland assembly.
In Ireland, memories are long. But it does not take a long memory in this case to recall when Trimble marched down the Garvaghy Road with the Rev. Ian Paisley during the first serious crisis at Drumcree, in July 1995. That display of Orange triumphalism burned itself into nationalist memory. It has prompted some to ask if Gerry Adams might not have been more deserving of a share of the prize.
Trimble’s journey to the Nobel prize was certainly indirect, going as it did through the Vanguard Movement set up by William Craig in 1972 to threaten mayhem in response to the imposition of Direct Rule, and then taking a run along Garvaghy Road. His identification with some of the most virulent forms of Protestant extremism has lasted until comparatively recently.
But then as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Trimble is not unique in that. Yassar Arafat, Nelson Mandela, Sean MacBride, all Nobel Peace Prize winners, were at one time or another associated with political violence, some of it worse than anything to which Trimble can be linked.
In any case, when judging the fairness and appropriateness of the award to the Unionist leader, one must take account not only the position from which the recipient started, but how far he has moved from that position. Most would agree that it is a long way from Garvaghy Road to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which recognizes the rights and aspirations of the North’s Catholic population in way not seen since the Sunningdale power-sharing experiment in 1973. It remains to be seen, of course, as to whether Trimble will be able to fulfill the hopes embodied by that agreement.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
Even as the news about the award was breaking, the Unionist leader was becoming embroiled ever more deeply in the controversy over decommissioning. He has since shown no sign of compromising on his stated position that those parties linked to paramilitary groups should not be allowed to take their places on the Shadow Executive prior to some decommissioning taking place.
There is speculation that the award of the Nobel Peace Prize might strengthen Trimble’s position within the Unionist Party and enable him to compromise on the decommissioning issue, thus ending the impasse. It has also been suggested that it might give the Unionist community recognition at an international level that it has never enjoyed before for its role in the peace process. But one thing has always to be borne in mind when considering Ulster Unionism: It is a closed world, deeply suspicious of anything outside of Northern Ireland. It is partly to do with the narrow provincialism that has afflicted unionism since partition, which makes it defensive at best — and outright hostile at worst — to attempts by the outside world to "meddle" in its affairs, even when it is meddling at its most benign. This means that Trimble will have to move even more carefully now he was received the award than before. In the next few weeks when the decommissioning controversy comes to a head, that political courage for which he was praised in the recitation must be demonstrated as never before.
Hume is not required to give such proofs. His political career has followed the straight road of opposition to violence, from his days as a civil rights demonstrator to his brief period in office in the power-sharing executive, and later to his long period as SDLP leader. He never flirted with paramilitarism, never used weasel words to excuse brutality and murder, and never wavered from his absolute conviction that in the Northern Ireland context violence was wrong and self-defeating, deepening divisions that already existed, and postponing the day when a solution could be achieved.
In terms of anti-violence, for 30 years Hume has been "the star to every wandering bark," a fixed moral position where those in doubt could find their bearings through Ulster’s dark night of terror and oppression. It is hard to think of a more deserving recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.