Arguably one of the most important political figures of the 20th Century, Irish statesman John Hume has died after a long battle with dementia. Hume involved himself in civil and human rights from an early age, at first in his beloved hometown of Derry and then in Northern Ireland as a whole. He was thrust into the public eye as the Troubles exploded into life and underwent hunger strikes in the early 1970s in protest the internment of suspected Republicans.
In 1970 he co-founded the SDLP and in 1979 he replaced Gerry Fitt as leader of the party. It was in this position, inside and out of the UK parliament he was elected to in 1983, that he spent the next 20 years pushing for an end to the violence in Northern Ireland. He is one of the few men to have received alleged death threats from the three different terrors groups in Northern Ireland, but he carried on his push for peace.
To this end, he spoke to the British, the Americans, the Unionists and controversially Sinn Fein, as he understood any lasting peace needed to be multilateral. When the Anglo-Irish Agreement failed, he carried on trying to push detente, sometimes at great personal risk, until his talks with Gerry Adams helped lead to the IRA ceasefire. It was these efforts which finally led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the declaration of peace between unionists and republicans in the province and the return of the shared assembly.
Everyone who lived through those days remembers where they were when they heard the news. I was sitting in front of a TV wondering why they’d cancelled The Simpsons episode scheduled.
John Hume was that rarity, a politician who stuck to his principles and beliefs in the sanctity of human rights and peace, even when neither was political convenient for large parts of his career. He survived gun threats and Thatcher putdowns and in the end he achieved success far beyond anyone’s dreams because he stuck to his guns. Mostly the ones about not using guns… It is perhaps a sign of the measure of the man that when he was offered the role of First Minister in the new Stormont Parliament he turned it down in favour of his deputy leader, Seamus Mallon. And when he won the Nobel Peace Prize (alongside David Trimble) he tried to name others who he felt deserved the prize far more.
When your death provokes heartfelt tributes from the Dalai fucking Lama you know you were a rare individual indeed. John Hume was 83 and will be missed, but his legacy lives on.
18 January 1937 – 3 August 2020