John Hume: a prophet, a patriot and statesman

John Hume: a prophet, a patriot and statesman Photo: CNS
He was a great man of faith who chose not to parade his Christianity – just to practice it and persevere through thick and thin writes Martin O’Brien

John Hume was one of the greatest Irishmen who has ever lived. He was one of the greatest in this or in any age since hunter gatherers first reached this island around 8,000 years ago.

He is not a distant Titan like O’Neill or O’Donnell from the 17th Century or like Daniel O’Connell or Charles Stewart Parnell from the 19th. Or even St Patrick from the Fifth Century. But he is in the Pantheon of Irish heroes with all of them. He is not wrapped in mist and myth like so many Irish greats who have graced the stage of history down two millennia.

He was one of our own – living in our own time. He lived with us, toiled for us, served us and risked all for us.


John was a patriot and a peacemaker recognised by the wider world – the only person ever to have received the Nobel, Gandhi and Martin Luther King peace awards. A remarkable, incredible achievement in itself. And we were all thrilled when in 2012 Pope Benedict appointed John a Knight Commander of St Gregory the Great.

John Hume defied the perceived laws of political gravity to shape and change our history. He persevered in fighting for a better way – against all the odds. And in spite of all the abuse from people who should have known better.

We do not celebrate his memory. Rather, we celebrate and honour his achievements in the spheres of peace, justice and human rights. We recognise the cultural, constitutional and political earthquake that John Hume did so much to create. And let us never forget that, from the very start, he did it all by exclusively peaceful and constitutional means. He was no late convert to the ways of peace and his commitment to peace has never been tactical but immanent to his very being.

So, what was it about John Hume that has made him one of the greatest Irish persons of all time? That is a question that will engage scholars and the writers of theses for as long as politics and history are subjects in universities not just in this island and in Britain. But I think when those historians come to dispassionately sift and weigh the evidence a number of qualities and values will be indelibly ascribed to John Hume.

Let me identify just some of them: service, vision, courage and perseverance.

These are values all combining to make John Hume a statesman revered wherever he went.

When John received the Gandhi Peace Prize in 2002 he said Mahatma Gandhi was “one of my greatest inspirations because Gandhi chose peace over war and human compassion over self-interest”.

Now, it was Gandhi who said that “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”.

And John’s service to others began in earnest when just aged 23 he and Pat and other young teachers and Fr Anthony Mulvey founded Derry Credit Union, the first credit union in Northern Ireland – with John in the key role of treasurer responsible for collecting the money on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons.

His motivation, as one of the lucky young educated ones, was to give something back to his people in the Bogside plagued as they were by poverty and high unemployment. Within four years John was making a national impact as leader of the Irish League of Credit Unions.

Someone who knows about these things once remarked to me that the credit union meant that for the first time ordinary rank and file Catholics had access to capital and that empowered them to lift themselves up a little bit in the world, as he put it to me.


That commitment to selfless service, that rejection of indifferent individualism, that ‘no’ to what would be called Thatcherism a quarter of a century later, defined John’s contribution to his fellow man throughout his life as a civil rights leader, a public representative, (even at times unpaid) and a peacemaker and pioneering architect of an agreed Ireland – his phrase, before anyone used it – that began to take shape on Good Friday 1998. And six weeks after that momentous Good Friday, the deal was ratified by the all-Ireland referenda which John had first proposed as a 32 county wide act of national self-determination more than a quarter of a century before.

I imagine that those RTÉ viewers who voted John ‘The Greatest Irish Person Ever’ in 2010 and the 44 seats of learning around the world, who have conferred on him honorary doctorates, have been struck by that other great quality that he embodied – and that is vision.

Three hundred years ago another great Irishman Jonathan Swift famously declared “vision is the art of seeing the invisible”. It’s that rare gift of vision that separates the statesman from the pygmy politician, the prophet from the jumped-up panjandrum.

John Hume showed the way forward to defuse the northern powder keg more than half a century ago and no one listened – with dire consequences for all of us, and especially those who were to die and of course their loved ones.

Some may not know about this or have forgotten about it. And, certainly those who excoriated John when he almost put himself in an early grave during the Hume-Adams Gethsemane either chose to forget or must not have known.

Let’s rewind the clock of history to Monday May 14, 1964. Lyndon Johnson’s presidency was still young in the White House. Paul VI’s papacy was still young in Rome. The 50th anniversaries of the Easter Rising and the Somme, were still two years away and it was still two years before Gusty Spence founded the new UVF and the murders of John Patrick Scullion and Peter Ward. It was five years before a Taoiseach could bring himself to talk about unity by consent.

And on that day May 14, 1964 the 27-year-old John Hume wrote a prophetic article for The Irish Times entitled ‘The Northern Catholic’. I think future historians will recognise it as the words of a prophet and a visionary with a sharp intelligence and a rare ability to step outside his own tribe and present a prescient analysis.

It was an analysis that challenged unionists and nationalists alike to lift the siege that had paralysed politics since the unfortunate birth of what one political scientist has called the “constitutional oddity” that is the Six Counties of Northern Ireland.

His words, which had they been heeded, would have made the history of the past 50 years so very different. Words that ring down the decades and may still assist any remaining slow learners at Stormont and elsewhere today.

On that day, when Gerry Adams was still a 16-year-old who had just started pulling pints in the Duke of York, John Hume, nearly 12 years his senior, was saying that “a truly united Ireland”, his words, could only come by rightly discounting violence, by what he called “evolution,” by “the will of the Northern majority”.


There was nothing inconsistent, he said, in nationalists accepting the constitutional position and believing that a 32 county republic was best for Ireland. He said Catholics and nationalists should clarify their position and if they seriously pursued a policy of non-recognition of Stormont the only logical policy was that of Sinn Féin.

He made it clear that the principal blame for the situation lay with the unionist government but added that the nationalist party must bear a share of the blame.

In 40 years of opposition, the nationalists – they took their salaries all right – had not come up with one constructive contribution on either the social or economic plane re the development of Northern Ireland, which was, after all, a substantial part of the united Ireland for which they strove. Their only constructive suggestion appeared to be that the removal of discrimination would be a panacea for all our ills.

He talked about a dangerous fusion between nationalism and Catholicism in the North that resulted in censorship in the nationalist press, mirroring censorship on the unionist side, leading to a situation where it had become extremely difficult for a Catholic to express publicly any point of view which did not coincide with the narrow nationalist line.

John Hume continued: “Apart from being factual, it also ought to be made fashionable that the Catholic Church does not impose upon its members any one form of political belief”. More than twenty years before a Catholic Primate acknowledged bigotry on the Catholic side, John said that another step towards easing community tensions and removing what bigotry exists among Catholics would be to: “recognise that the Protestant tradition in the North is as strong and as legitimate as our own. Such recognition is our first step towards better relations”.

Another great virtue that John and his wife Pat always personified and that is courage – which is in the words of Mark Twain, “resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear”.


Courage became the hallmark of John. He refused to be cowed even when his home was firebombed, his cars destroyed, when he narrowly escaped a mob while driven by his friend Dr Raymond McClean or when protesting internment, he was soaked with water cannon and spread-eagled against a wall by a British soldier, to cite just a few incidents.

That courage was particularly evident during the Hume Adams period when John gravely risked his health for the cause of peace. None of us will ever forget the image of him weeping at a Greeysteel funeral when the family of one of the victims told him they had prayed for him “for what you are trying to do to bring peace”.

John’s physical and moral courage was an inspiration to people in Ireland and around the world. John persevered and without his perseverance there would have been no peace process in Ireland as we know it.

On October 16, 1998 the Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo issued a statement part of which read: “Over the past thirty years, the national, religious and social conflict in Northern Ireland has cost over 3,500 people their lives. John Hume has throughout been the clearest and most consistent of Northern Ireland’s political leaders in his work for a peaceful solution. The foundations of the peace agreement signed on Good Friday 1998 reflect principles which he has stood for.”

The Nobel Prize, the most coveted award on the planet, reflected the reality that John had been the prime mover and the consistently most influential figure in devising ways to break the cycle of conflict in Northern Ireland down the decades from Sunningdale in 1973 through to the Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985, the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 and to Good Friday in 1998.

And when in 1982 the Iron Lady ordered Jim Prior to remove the Irish dimension that John had persuaded William Whitelaw to accept as far back as 1972, John stood firm and told Mrs Thatcher and Mr Prior where to go and eventually Mrs Thatcher signed up to the Anglo Irish Agreement with John’s friend, Garret FitzGerald.

We now know that a key element in Mrs Thatcher’s Irish u-turn at Hillsborough in 1985 was the pressure exerted on her by the United States government and her friend Ronald Regan and by John Hume’s friends Tip O’Neill and Edward Kennedy.

And that pressure we now know can be traced back to John Hume and the tireless work he put into internationalising the problem of Northern Ireland in London, Washington DC and as a member of the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg. It has been said that he has had the ear of every American president since Jimmy Carter.

When I met the late Senator Edward Kennedy in his office in the Capitol Buidling, Washington DC in 1984 the first question he asked me was: “How is my friend John Hume?”

Edward Kennedy has written: “I first met John Hume in 1972…Ever since that evening I have had enormous respect for John, his courage and his leadership. He has had a profound influence on my thinking and on the attitudes of congress and the American government towards the conflict; he has often been called the 101st Senator from Northern Ireland.”

Indeed, the SDLP’s seminal policy document ‘Toward a New Ireland’ in that year of 1972, the worst of the Troubles, which John did so much to fashion insisted no solution could be imposed by Britain, that a treaty between Ireland and Britain should be underpinned by legislation in both parliaments, that there should be a system of government in Northern Ireland fair to all sections of the people, and, crucially, it should secure the agreement and consent of the people of Ireland, North and South.

No wonder then the Nobel Committee declared the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement reflected the principles John has always stood for. His sharing of the prize with David Trimble appropriately symbolised John’s own decades old analysis, mantra even. And when critics and political opponents got tired of listening to his so-called ‘Single Transferable Speech’ John persevered saying he would keep repeating it, and keep working for its implementation because the problem had not gone away you know, the problem had not changed, and an answer could only be found in the context of an agreed Ireland, the three sets of relationships, respect for diversity, equal respect for our two great traditions and identities and the Irish people exercising their right of self-determination.

As they did in the 1998 referendum North and South on the same day – as John had long proposed. Again and again and again he condemned violence offering a better way, repeating again and again the words of his hero and fellow Nobel laureate, Dr Martin Luther King: “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind”.


Miriam O’Callaghan summed up his perseverance and tenacity very succinctly on RTÉ in 2010. She said: “His friends call it his ‘stickability’: logically analysing and understanding not only the problem, but the solution; working out the way forward and repeating it as a mantra, like a teacher, until everyone else saw the light: a formula for peace.”

So, today I salute the late John Hume and I think of the people living today who would not be around without his efforts for peace. For perhaps more than any other man, in this or in any age in Ireland, he embraced and lived out to breaking point the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1).

John was a great man of faith who chose not to parade his Christianity – just to practice it. Yes, he persevered through thick and thin and altered the course of Irish history in the cause of what is good.

At personal sacrifice and with results that historians will for ever chronicle he lived out the immortal words of his fellow Irish Nobel laureate and fellow student of St. Columb’s College, Derry, Séamus Heaney, who once wrote: “Even if the hopes you started out with are dashed, hope has to be maintained…Even if the last move did not succeed, the inner command says move again.”

Yes, John Hume, prophet, patriot and statesman moved again and again in the cause of peace. And for a better Ireland for the children of this generation and for children yet unborn.

May he rest in peace.

Martin O’Brien is northern correspondent of The Irish Catholic and a former editor of The Irish News and a producer with the BBC.