Life

Mary Kelly: Our current politicians must finish the job John Hume and co started

John Hume was often mocked for his 'single transferable speech' about not being able to eat a flag and how the only way forward was to build relationships and respect differences. It might have been a cliché, but it was also the truth

John Hume in his home city of Derry in 2004. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Mary Kelly

I WAS nine when the Malvern Street murders in 1966 heralded the start of the Troubles. And since I grew up in a household where no one was allowed to speak when the news was on, I was well aware of the respect my politically minded dad had for John Hume, especially when he wiped the floor with unionists on Scene Around Six.

I remember the feeling of pride when he took on that posh Parachute regiment officer after anti-internment marchers walking down Magilligan Strand in 1972 were fired upon with rubber bullets.

"Your government has prohibited this march," the officer said.

"Whose government? It's not our government, and that's why you're here," countered Hume.

That scene was replayed many times after his death was announced on Monday. And that youthful anger was in stark contrast to the other much played clip of an older Hume, breaking down in tears as the daughter of one of the Greysteel victims told him her family had prayed for him round her daddy's coffin that he would continue the talks with Sinn Fein to end the bloodshed.

It was a measure of the man that he did continue in the teeth of opposition by many in his own party and the vilification he endured at the hands of some of the Dublin commentariat. He famously told the late Jim Dougal of RTE that he didn't give "two balls of roasted snow" what other people thought, but in a later interview his wife Pat revealed that she and the couple's children were also questioning the wisdom of continuing, especially in the face of loyalist threats to other party colleagues.

But thank God for his stubbornness and his conviction that his path was the right one. He was often mocked for his 'single transferable speech' about not being able to eat a flag and how the only way forward was to build relationships and respect differences. It might have been a cliché, but it was also the truth.

As a journalist I came across John Hume many times, including a few St Patrick's Days in Washington DC where mention of his name opened many doors. We'd been trying for ages to get an interview with Senator Edward Kennedy for the BBC's Hearts and Minds, but couldn't get past his phalanx of staffers. That was until I saw him with John Hume at the glittering American Ireland Fund ball.

Hume introduced me and when I repeated my interview request, Hume said, "It's a good programme, Ted. You should do it." No better recommendation, Kennedy obliged.

John was also supposed to be on that programme along with Gerry Adams. But it all went pear-shaped when he turned up to find out the interview was to be filmed with a good view of the White House behind, but from the rooftop of a high rise building.

After 12 floors on the lift, he made it up two more flights of stairs through a pump room, breathless and complaining. He took one look at the ladder leading to the roof and refused to go another step. "Are you mad? With the state of my health?". Adams, meanwhile, was already on the roof and leaned down to offer a hand. But Hume was having none of it. "Are you trying to kill me?" he asked me. I was half afraid I might, so reluctantly went ahead with just Adams while Hume headed off to one of the many other events in the capital clamouring for his presence.

He was gracious about it at the time, though a year or two later he did give me a telling-off about a film on Hearts and Minds which provided an unflattering look at his ageing party lagging behind Sinn Fein at the polls. He didn't like it and told me it was most unfair. But then he would greet me by name at our next encounter. Later that turned into "Hello, wee girl," when names began to elude him.

I had no idea that dementia was already taking hold when he stepped down as leader of the SDLP in 2001. At the Wellington Park Hotel where the announcement was made, I approached to ask if he would do a final interview looking back at his career. "I can't," he said, gripping my hand. "I forget things now."

We won't forget his achievements though. And if the peace he fought for all his life

has not yet brought a stable political environment, that is down to the politicians who have succeeded his generation. He did the heavy lifting. Now it's their turn to finish the job John Hume started.

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