Known for his political bravery and words of amicable resolution, the Northern Irish politician, John Hume, has died at the age of 83. He was a well-known figure in Anglo-Irish politics and for those unaware of him, I hope this article allows you to learn about his contribution to what is noticeably today, a much calmer Northern Ireland.
Raised as a Catholic in Derry/Londonderry, Hume saw peaceful politics as the only solution to the Northern Ireland Troubles and not violence, between Catholics and Protestants. He was unique in his goal of achieving peace through democratic means when there was no real definition as to what the Troubles were, nor when they would end. He became a founding member of the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) in the early 1970s and led the party from 1979 to 2001. Consequently, he was instrumental in later peace talks, which led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement signed by both the British and Irish governments. In fact, his role was so pivotal that he became a Nobel Peace Prize winner later that same year. His achievements on paper are impressive, but his achievements of the mind, in changing how people viewed eachother’s differences, are monumental. He infamously declared:
“let’s work together and build together, and as we do that, the real solution will begin… the real healing process will begin, and we will erode the distrust of the past.”
The Troubles began following the 1968 Civil Rights Marches in Northern Ireland, but as the violence, bloodshed, bombing and death rate increased, it seemed like no side was winning, no side could win and through that, no end in sight. Hume was the first person to identify that there even was a question of division needing to be answered in Northern Ireland. Through this realisation, he believed violence prevented the pathway to solution. These divisions caused huge struggles between communities vying for power, one over the other. As a result, staunch sectarianism grew. In his first speech to the UK parliament, Hume himself pointed out,
“when one tells the majority that it can protect itself only by remaining in the majority, one invites it to maintain sectarian solidarity as the only means of protection. Therefore, one makes sectarianism the motive force of politics.”
People in Northern Ireland believed being part of the majority population was key to surviving and overcoming the Troubles. The foundations of Northern Ireland reiterated this concept. The island of Ireland was predominantly Catholic but Ulster, the northern region of Ireland, was made up of Protestant unionists. Following the creation of Northern Ireland in the early 1920s, the Protestants held the majority; the Catholics did not. How the country developed over the years would largely be based on which community was bigger and who, therefore, held the majority when it came to political decision making.
Hume argued this sectarian mindset would not allow for an end to the Troubles. He told the people their identities were valued but to continue violently preaching so was not a sustainable solution to their causes. He suggested people looked towards democratic practises in order to change their situation. In all, Hume gave equal meaning to both Catholics and Protestants. He instilled the idea that there was no need to continue the bloodshed as a way out of the Troubles. It was no longer a clash of beliefs, with no end in sight; there was going to be a result, regardless of how long it took. By insisting on peace, he was already looking at the difficulties Northern Ireland faced through a different lens.
There is no doubt that Hume’s political bravery paved the way for the calmer Northern Ireland we see today. He strove for a peaceful solution through democratic means and, in maintaining that message, he brought the Catholic and Protestant communities of Northern Ireland and the British and Irish governments together in peace in 1998. He built peace then, now and for generations to come. When some voiced anger through violence, Hume chose words. It was this bravery he will always be remembered for in Anglo-Irish politics.
Words by Lisa McGrady
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