John Hume, former SDLP leader and Nobel Laureate

Born: January 18, 1937;

Died: August 3, 2020.

JOHN Hume, who has died after a short illness at the age of 83, was a key figure in the Northern Ireland peace process, for which he won global renown. In 1998, as leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, shared the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland”.

His death was announced in a statement by his family, who said: “It seems particularly apt for these strange and fearful days to remember the phrase that gave hope to John and so many of us through dark times, ‘We shall overcome’.”

In a long and distinguished public career, Hume was also a member of Parliament at Stormont, Westminster and the European Parliament in Strasbourg, a winner of the International Gandhi and Martin Luther King Peace prizes, and a pioneer of the Irish Credit Union Movement.

The current SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, said that Hume was the most significant political figure in Ireland.

Poverty shaped much of John Hume’s philosophical and political thinking throughout his lifetime as he was born into it. The eldest of a large family, his father was one of Derry’s long-term unemployed. He was one of the first tranche of working-class children to benefit from the 1947 Education Act and attended St Columb’s College.

Afterwards, he enrolled at St Patrick’s Seminary, Maynooth, part of University College, Dublin, where he studied French and history.

Deciding that the priesthood was not his calling, he returned to Derry to teach. Access to affordable financial services for disadvantaged Derry people, for whom the pawn shop was a community necessity and loan sharks a social evil, prompted Hume and others to found Derry Credit Union.

I served with John on the board of directors and witnessed the intensity of his commitment to the movement across the whole island of Ireland. His political leanings first became public in 1965 when he led a cross-community action committee, demanding the North’s planned second university should be sited in Derry. Unionist plotting ensured it was unsuccessful but

Hume recognised the two communities had shared ambitions, germinating what was to become a

life-long, political philosophy.

His television interviews at that time created interest in a young man of keen, intellectual capacity and excellent communication skills, well suited to a relatively new medium.

A gerrymander of Derry City by the Unionists in order to maintain political control, meant that no houses were built. Hume was active in one of the first not-for-profit housing associations and managed to build a small estate of homes.

In 1968, we were together elected to Derry Citizens’ Action Committee, a civil rights organisation, comprised of both Catholics and Protestants, which focused on local issues. The ineptitude of the Unionist Government response to peaceful protest with police violence led to community rioting and the arrival of British troops on the streets.

John was elected as an independent Nationalist MP to Stormont in 1969 and began a political career that would last throughout the most turbulent and violent period in Ireland’s recent history. He succeeded Gerry Fitt as leader of the SDLP in 1979. Hume and the party were strongly opposed to violence and, in particular, the IRA because he was strongly of the belief that it further divided people. His election to Europe in 1979 and to Westminster four years later allowed him to internationalise the situation in the Six Counties.

His history background had taught him that the US could be a powerful broker in conflict situations. He made influential allies in America; recognising that the State Department was in hock to Whitehall, he concentrated on the White House, and success was achieved in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter, against the wishes of the British Government, issued a statement on Ireland, ending with “I place myself firmly on the side of those who seek peace and reject violence in Northern Ireland”.

This became policy for successive presidents and was most insistently pursued by Bill Clinton.

The defining breakthrough in Northern Ireland happened when John, despite caustic criticism from his own party and Southern politicians, engaged in talks with Gerry Adams. He wanted to bring Sinn Fein into mainstream politics with grave risk to the SDLP, should he succeed; he put peace before party. The Hume-Adams talks delivered the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements and restored peace. At the end of the process, John’s health began to fail and he retired from active politics.

Conscious of poverty, the money which he received from the Nobel and other awards was donated to charity and a Trust was set up for that purpose , administered by his quite remarkable wife, Pat, who had been his personal assistant throughout his career.

A journeyman cricketer and footballer, in company, John told and enjoyed many colourful anecdotes; he could be encouraged to give a song, most notably The Town I Loved So Well, the masterpiece of his fellow Derryman, Phil Coulter.

We remember John Hume as a person of persistent moral courage and for his commitment to non-violence, and physical and mental bravery in daunting situations.

Hume recognised that difference is the essence of humanity and should not be a source of hatred or conflict. Respect for diversity for him was a fundamental principle of peace and co-existence. Europe, where formerly warring nations had united for productive interdependency, was, he sensed, a template for Ireland. He was the politician whose principles remained intact, whether tackling local situations in Derry or travelling the world as an international statesman.

It is unlikely that we shall see his equal again in these islands.

He is survived by his widow, Pat and children Áine, Aidan, Therese, John and Maureen (Mo).

John Patton