Icon of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland who sought common ground and consensus

Born: February 22, 1938;

Died: September 2, 2021.

“When the history of Ireland is written, if Pat Hume’s name is not beside John’s it will be an incomplete history.”

These were the words spoken by Father Paul Farron at the funeral of Nobel Peace Prize winner, John Hume. Hume was credited as the leading light behind decades of reform in Northern Ireland, from the power-sharing Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, through the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Over three decades John Hume dedicated his life to addressing the political partition that had plagued the province, denying it peace and prosperity.

And all the while, at every step he was joined, supported, encouraged and, at times, led by his wife Pat Hume.

Patricia Hone was born in 1938 in the walled border city of Derry. She was one of six children, educated at Thornhill College she became a teacher. She taught primary children in her beloved Derry. In 1958 she and John met at a dance hall in Donegal and two years later they married.

John was also a proud child of Derry. The city itself seems to have been a prominent character in the life of Pat Hume. The city was the focal point of the nascent civil rights movement of the mid Sixties.

On the 5th October 1968, alongside her husband, Pat marched under the aegis of The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. They were demonstrating against political and economic discrimination that the Catholic community was being subjected to by the Westminster government.

London banned the march and sent in The Royal Ulster Constabulary to disperse the crowd. The RUC had a reputation for brutality, a reputation witnessed as a reality on Derry that day.

The city itself was a metaphor for the Troubles. Renamed Londonderry by the British, it sat on the border between the Republic and the six counties that formed the Province and suffered a split personality, both being an icon for Irish Nationalism whilst also being a strategic centre for the government in London.

Pat was born into this dichotomy, this contradiction. But rather than let the chaos around her lead her towards partisan politics, she, like her husband, sought to find common ground and consensus.

In 1969 John became a member of the Parliament of Northern Ireland as an Independent Nationalist. Public office removed him from the grassroots activities and as the trajectory of his career inclined upward, Pat became his eyes and ears on the ground, in touch with the ordinary people. One observer described her as “a woman without pretension, happiest amongst her own people.”

When her husband lost his job in the wake of the collapse of the short-lived Northern Ireland Assembly in 1974, Pat became the primary breadwinner.

After Hume was elected to represent the constituency of Foyle as a Member of Parliament at Westminster, Pat ran his constituency office.

For any of us that lived through the Troubles, even from a near distance, the powder keg atmosphere of life in the North couldn’t have been more pronounced. A constant sense of heightened febrility saw the British Army locked into a war with paramilitaries.

There were times when political figures were drawn into personal attacks. On one occasion, when Hume was away on parliamentary business the family home came under siege from disgruntled citizens. Such was the substance of the woman, Pat took her five children and walked them the five miles over the River Foyle and across the border into the Republic in the hope of some respite from the personal troubles brought upon her family through their role in the political Troubles.

Since her death, the plaudits and praise have been defined not just by the superlatives with which they are offered but as much by the range of those who offer them. An academic praised her “steadfastness”, while a local activist described her as “goodness personified”. Former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and her husband former President Bill Clinton said that Pat had “played an enormous role in achieving peace in Northern Ireland…[advancing] her cause with grace, courage and good humour.”

In a city, a county, a country defined by division and discord, Pat Hume created community and engendered equity in an era built on suspicion and scepticism. She was affectionately known as The First Lady of Derry.

In an age when women seldom receive any recognition for the good works they conduct behind the scenes, in what many like to describe as in the shadow of their husbands, the outpouring of grief and love for Pat Hume reflects a genuine, broad church recognition of the sort of power, the quiet persuasion and consensual vision this woman possessed.

She, at the side of her husband, her husband at her side, changed the face of politics and life in Northern Ireland. There could be no greater example of the change Pat Hume brought about than the words of Lady Daphne Trimble, wife of former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, who talked of their “warm friendship”.

“She was one of the best, simply one of the best people I have ever met.”

The history of Ireland is being written and Pat Hume’s name will be inscribed alongside that of her husband, John.