John Hume – A well earned reputation

By Niall McHugh

John Hume’s contribution to the island of Ireland has been hailed across the political spectrum throughout Ireland and across the globe. In the days following his death, stories championing his achievements explaining why he earned a global reputation as a statesman and peacemaker have been coupled with stories of the love and care shown to him in recent years in his hometown of Derry.

His legacy for advancing peace via non-violent means in the midst of sectarian conflict and chaos, as underpinned by the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement, will cement his status as one of the greatest Irish leaders of all time.

For me personally, I was given a great opportunity as a younger man to participate in a programme as part of the International School for Peace Studies in Messines Belgium, which aimed to bring together some of the most impacted communities in Northern Ireland. This was a unique exposure to individuals and issues of conflict which were foreign and distant to me coming from just down the road in Dublin. I got to meet some great people who all participated in constructive dialogue, debate and learning, where both sides of the conflict were represented and where all were listened to. The school itself was established in 2001 by former loyalist leader Glenn Barr, to help heal still seeping wounds within Northern Irish communities. The inclusive nature of the school and the focus on the pride and heritage of everyone who would participate would however not exist had it not been for people like John Hume, who recognised and championed the importance of inclusion, acceptance, and compromise.

When looking at John Hume through the reputation lens, you can see why he rightly earned a far-reaching reputation that has seen people from all backgrounds and levels of society celebrating his life and applauding all that he achieved. Active within his community as a schoolteacher in Derry, Hume was an activist who was passionate about rectifying and resolving the issues which impacted his community and those around them. Having seen his mother and members of his family borrow from loan sharks and pawn brokers and his young students facing lives of economic hardship he worked to establish the Derry Credit Union, the first in Northern Ireland. This served as a platform that allowed him to eventually progress and become the president of the Irish League of Credit Unions and to become a key voice for those most important to him. Throughout the 1960s Hume became a central figure in the city’s Civil Rights Movement as he and others sought fairness in franchise, jobs and housing.

Hume became more and more involved in politics and quickly built experience and favour within his local community where he eventually became a founding member of the SDLP in August 1970. The SDLP's values mirrored Hume's own: non-violence and striving for agreement amongst the three key stakeholder groupings: Nationalists and Unionists in the North, between North and South, and between Britain and Ireland. These relationships are now at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. 

Writing in the Guardian this week, Seamus O’Reilly identifies Hume’s experience as being a key part of his leadership, with a steely grit and determination backed by decades of often thankless, and often exhausting activism. He says, “to laud John Hume merely for his benevolence and graft would be to forget the steel that lay beneath it. Hume should be remembered for his commitment to peaceful protest and unerring denunciation of paramilitary violence.”

He continues, “John Hume continuously put his career, and life, on the line for civil rights and social justice, advocating for causes many considered impossible to achieve, and which may have remained so had it not been for his resolve, and that of those he inspired.”

Leaders that can mirror the expectations of their most important stakeholders and be relatable will benefit from a similar transfer of trust and advocacy. Hume’s greatest success was in his ability to relate to others and to consider all points of views and to further build on these views, making compromises in the interest of his bigger picture – peace in Northern Ireland.

In his commitment to find a peaceful solution to conflict in Northern Ireland, Hume was still able to bring to the table, those with policies and agendas in stark contrast to his own. Recognising the importance of compromise, Hume reached out to and effectively navigated polarising figures, yet important figures to each side of the conflict and successfully brought them to the negotiating table.

“The first thing we have to do sounds like a contradiction,” Hume explained. “We must accept diversity. The essence of unity … is the acceptance of diversity.”

What mattered ultimately to Hume was the unity of people, not the unity of territory. He recognised that progress could not be made by only talking to the middle ground, and that it was essential to include those causing the violence in the discussions, where others had scorned them. This was an essential piece of the puzzle in finding a resolution.

In doing so, he risked his own personal reputation and received backlash, facing accusations that he was being manipulated by terrorists, or that he was using the IRA to aid his own negotiating power. His steadfast and unshakable commitment to peace in Northern Ireland, as well as his ability to speak and engage his community, ensured that he endured, all in the interest of peace.

In his tribute to Hume this week, Uachtarán na hÉireann, Michael D Higgins said that; “through his astute diplomacy and willingness to listen to the views of others he transformed and remodelled politics in Ireland, and the search for peace. He showed a personal bravery and leadership informed by a steadfast belief in the principles and values of genuine democracy.”

People will make judgements about you based on how competent they perceive you to be so you must outperform, and be seen to outperform, those expectations. Writing in the Irish Times, Former Irish Ambassador to the United States of America, Seán Donlon hailed John Hume’s place among the pantheon of great Irish nationalist leaders. In his piece, Donlon identified how the actions of Hume were in stark contrast to existing nationalist attitudes at the time including De Valera, which was to let Britain solve a problem they had created via partition in 1920.

Hume set out and stuck to principles of peace and genuine democracy which would underpin his agenda for peace and discourse. This would go on to dominate politics in Northern Ireland, Dublin, London and eventually influence Washington and Brussels.

In the Easter of 1998, Northern Ireland's largest political parties signed a peace agreement which became known as the Good Friday agreement. In the autumn of 1998, the Nobel Committee decided to award the Peace Prize to two persons who were at the heart of the peace process in the civil-war-torn province, with Hume being one of said two.

His success in ultimately achieving the 1998 peace process, in so far as adoption of agenda, represents an extraordinary achievement and should earn Hume his place and reputation as an equally extraordinary leader in the annals of great Irish Leaders such as Parnell and O’Connell, in their pursuit of nationalist agendas through non-violent means.

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