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John Hume

Irish Activist Seeks More Than Peace for His Troubled Land

November 01, 1998|Kelly Candaele | Kelly Candaele is a contributing writer for Irish America magazine and has written for the New York Times and the Nation

Two weeks ago, one-half of the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Northern Irish politician John Hume. The Nobel committee stated that for the past 30 years, Hume had been the "clearest and most consistent" advocate of peace in Northern Ireland. More than 3,200 people have lost their lives in Northern Ireland since the modern "troubles" began in the late 1960s. While the outside world has seen graphic images of the violence that has convulsed Northern Ireland as recently as August, when a bomb killed 28, the diligent work of the peacemakers was often overlooked. Hume is one of the most diligent.

Thirty years ago, Hume, now leader of the largest nominally Catholic political party in Northern Ireland, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, threw himself into the struggle for Catholic civil rights. While the Irish Republican Army and leaders of Sinn Fein, its political wing, insisted the Protestant-dominated government of Northern Ireland could not be peacefully reformed, Hume steadfastly pressed a nonviolent approach to political change. Hume understood there would be no military victory for either the IRA or the British army.

In the mid-1970s, Hume began outlining a political scenario for peace. He suggested a power-sharing Northern Irish assembly; simultaneous democratic referendums on the peace deal in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic; and cross-border political structures linking north and south. All these proposals are now elements of the Good Friday Agreement, negotiated by former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell and signed by most of Northern Ireland's major political parties in April. While continuing to assert that Ireland should ultimately be reunited, Hume has maintained that the ultimate political status of Northern Ireland should be changed only with the consent of the majority of its citizens.

Hume took a great risk in 1993, when he approached Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein. After their secret talks were revealed, Hume was vilified by most of the Protestant Unionist community and in the press. Major figures in his own party turned against him. His life was threatened. But his persistence paid off as Sinn Fein joined the talks on new political arrangements for Northern Ireland.

Hume, 61, is a tenacious political campaigner. Often disheveled and rumpled, his appearance belies a highly organized intellect. While he did not take a position in the new Northern Irish government, Hume continues to serve in both the British and European Parliaments. Patricia, his wife of 38 years, runs the Social Democrats' constituency office in Londonderry, or Derry, as many there still call it. They have five children.

Hume shares this year's award with John Trimble, first minister of the Northern Irish Assembly and leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. From his European Parliament office in Strasbourg, France, Hume spoke about the changing nature of the nation-state, his relationship with Adams and his optimism about long-term peace in Northern Ireland.


Question: Many people now look to Northern Ireland as an example of how seemingly intractable conflicts can be reconciled. What can people in other areas of conflict learn from Ireland?

Answer: All conflict, when you study it, is about difference--whether it's your race, your religion or your nationality. And the answer to difference is not to fight about it but to respect it, because difference is an accident of birth. In respecting difference, the best way to do it in areas of conflict is to set up democratic institutions which respect our differences but allow us to work together with one another in our common interests. Those common interests are largely social and economic. We have to spill our sweat and not our blood. This way you build the trust and break down the barriers of centuries which allows a new society to evolve based upon agreement and respect for difference. That's what we are now doing in Northern Ireland.


Q: How did you first get involved in politics in Northern Ireland?

A: I didn't intend to get involved in politics. I was one of the first generation from my community to get free, full-time education. My parents could not afford to pay, as my father was unemployed. Up until 1947, you couldn't go to high school or the university here without having to pay for it; 1947 was the first year of scholarships, and I got one. When I came back to Derry, I thought I had a duty to those not as fortunate as myself. I got involved in community development through the credit-union movement. We started the first credit union in Derry in 1960, and it's now one of the biggest in the whole of Europe.


Q: A number of commentators have pointed out that Martin Luther King Jr. was a great influence on you.

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