Derry, Northern Ireland is an unlikely place for a Nobel Peace Prize winner to call home. A city so divided that it cannot even agree on its own name – Protestants call it Londonderry, Catholics Derry. The Irish flag regularly draped itself over the sign “You are now entering Londonderry”, strategically covering the “London”, reminding people that the town was called Derry until a British corporation purchased naming rights to the town in the 19th century and renamed it Londonderry.
Your flying colors
Your family tree
And all your lessons in history
For every Irish person in the era of the Troubles, Gerry Adams – the Sinn Fein leader and whispered commander of the IRA – was the dangerous man. So dangerous that we were forbidden by the powers that be from hearing his words spoken in Newspapers, Radio or TV. Instead we whispered about him behind the walls of the derelict urban edifices of Dublin, in the back rooms of smoky village pubs and in the fourth verses of Irish songs – where references to the Troubles were concealed from English ears through poetry, metaphor and double-entendre.
John Hume was the voice of reason, rationality and peace. In other words: Weak. A man on his knees, begging for all of us to just get along. He brought a speech to a gunfight. Hume was as establishment as it gets: A member of Parliament in Westminster and of the European Parliament in Brussels simultaneously. A Masters Graduate at Northern Ireland’s top all-Catholic school. A founding member of the Northern Ireland Credit Union – a movement he saw as a way of doing an end-run around the British banking system used by protestants to institutionalize housing discrimination. Hume was as establishment as it gets, and it was only by a twist of fate during his college years that we call him John and not “Father Hume” – for he enrolled in university to become a priest, to give sermons on the mount from the boot of his car. Oh, Please!
He was also weak. When, in 1982/83, a series of tit-for-tat civilian murders escalated the conflict, he was the man who wasn’t there. In a live-TV tragedy in 1988, both Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams were within a few metres of a series of hand grenades thrown at an IRA funeral at Milltown Cemetery. Adams was the hero, calmly telling the crowd to duck behind stone graves and assist the wounded while the grenades were still flying. Hume was the man who didn’t show up to the funeral.
Yet, behind the scenes, the establishment man was the real hero. At a time when both Irish and British governments were framing the conflict as one between terrorism and law-and-order, Hume knew the utter complexity of the situation, and understood the hard decisions that had to be made in order to bring it to an end. While everyone else vilified Gerry Adams, Hume talked to him. While everyone else vilified Ian Paisley (not least for his silly decision to unilaterally grant himself the status of “priest” by creating his own church), Hume talked to him. Ian “[Catholics] breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin'” Paisley. Ian Paisley who once heckled the Pope, calling him the Antichrist. Ian “[Irish people] will legislate perversion and immorality” Paisley. Ian “Dancing is sinful and lustful” Paisley. While Irish leaders – most notably John Bruton and Garret Fitzgerald, refused steadfastly to recognize the role of the IRA in the peace process, Hume quietly convinced reluctant leaders of the sanity of using peace to destroy the IRA.
It worked. It almost worked as early as 1985, when the Hume-backed Anglo-Irish treaty created, for the first time, an Irish consultative role in the governing of Northern Ireland. It’s failure didn’t deter Hume – it simply demonstrated that which is possible. It also showed Hume that if the conflict was seen as a power struggle between the UK and Ireland, the UK wins without really having to fight. Hume, a keen student of history, was well aware of the importance of Eamonn DeValera’s American birth. Unlike the other leaders of the Irish 1916 Easter rising, DeValera, a United States citizen, was not executed by the British – most likely because Prime Minister Lloyd George wanted to avoid taking any action that would deter American involvement in World War 1. In 1995, Hume called President Clinton – himself of Irish extraction – and asked a small favor of the USA. Could President Clinton please ignore the 200 year old unwritten rule that the USA would never interfere in the domestic affairs of the UK? It would prove to be a pivotal call.
Much to the Chagrin of Prime Minister John Major, Clinton agreed. In December 1995, Clinton became the first sitting President to visit Northern Ireland. He appointed George Mitchell to lead the talks as an impartial observer, but he was clearly leveraging the USA as a power broker, telling the nationalists they too had friends in high places.
The path from there to peace was fast but not smooth. On 15th June 1996, a ceasefire was broken by the IRA as they detonated a bomb in Manchester, a reminder to the British that talks in Northern Ireland would not succeed without Sinn Fein. The bombers gave a 90 minute telephone warning, but injured over 200 people nevertheless.
So you never knew
How low you’d stoop to make that call
Hume, no fan of these IRA tactics, remained resolute, despite the back-and-forth damage this bomb did to the peace process.
Down the drain
Shards of glass splinters like rain
But you could only feel
Your own pain
As talks collapsed in late 1996, Hume realized he needed to offer an olive branch to Loyalists who believed they were being left out in the cold and that the IRA was being rewarded for the Manchester Bombing with a seat at the negotiating table. Loyalists needed a bankable, symbolic victory – a scalp – to convince their voter base to support the deal.
Talks getting nowhere
Are we just starting again?
Hume knew he was not in a position to offer Gerry Adams as a political sacrifice. So he offered himself as the Easter lamb. He agreed that if the deal was signed, he would make himself ineligible for the leadership role in the new Northern Ireland assembly.
When the Belfast Agreement was signed on Good Friday 1998, it was a huge victory for Hume’s SDLP party, and a huge Easter weekend capitulation for the IRA. Under the terms of the agreement, the IRA gave up their weapons and disbanded, republicans recognized Northern Ireland as a separate legal entity from the rest of the Island, and they agreed that Northern Ireland would remain a part of the United Kingdom until the people of Northern Ireland decided otherwise. The Republic of Ireland agreed to give up their territorial claims to Northern Ireland. In exchange, they got to govern themselves, and the Irish government would have a role in Northern Ireland for the first time.
John Hume was a nationalist. He wanted throughout his entire life to see a United Ireland. And he spent a lifetime fighting the shadowy characters whose guns and bibles made it less likely.
Just weeks before his death, a Lucid poll indicated that over 40% of Northern Irish people consider themselves neither Nationalist nor Unionist – they are Northern Irelanders – a sense of identity unthinkable just a few short years ago. In the 30 years before the Good Friday Agreement, over 5,000 people died in the Troubles, an average of 170+ people per year. Since Good Friday 1998, 158 people have died in political violence – fewer people in 22 years than in any one year during the Troubles.
Hume won the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize. He never went back on his word to not seek further political leadership roles, and he retired just three years later rather than run for re-election.
I’ve always thought the strongest lyric in U2’s 1997 masterpiece Please was this:
You know I’ve found it hard to receive
‘Cause you my love I could never believe
Religion in Ireland has collapsed in recent decades, a much stronger slide in belief than seen in other countries. Is this the logical consequence of the perception that Churches were complicit in the atrocities of Northern Ireland? I suspect Bono is singing to his priest in this song. He can’t receive (communion) because he doesn’t believe. I assume the still-christian Bono isn’t talking about God. He is talking surely about Church. A church which lost all credibility as it’s leaders failed utterly to prevent their adherents from slaughtering each other for 30 years. A church which failed to claim the victory Jesus won at Easter.
Thankfully John Hume was there to lead them to Good Friday instead. Rest in Peace John.