John Hume

Tom Kelly: John Hume was the greatest Irish political leader since Parnell

Then Stormont MP John Hume in 1969. Image from RTÉ

“MEN will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now... that it was his hand, more than any single man, that built the great coalition... It was his leadership which inspired free men... with greater hope and courage. Gone is the fresh and spontaneous interest which this man took, as naturally as he breathed air, in the troubles and the hardships and the disappointments of little men and humble people.”

This paraphrased epitaph was written by the New York Times on the death of Franklin D Roosevelt, arguably America’s greatest president.

The words therein could so easily be said of John Hume, who is without doubt the greatest Irish political leader since Charles Stewart Parnell.

Across Ireland, men, women and children, and generations not yet born, have reason to be grateful that such a man emerged with the foresight, creativity and single-mindedness to sculpt a peace process that took the gun out of Irish politics.

He didn’t do it alone and nor did he claim to. When others followed the herd mentality he broke out of the straitjacket that bedevilled the Irish question. Hume wasn’t haunted by the past; he didn’t look over his shoulder, he led from the front.

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Hume’s physical voice has not been heard in many years because of his long battle with dementia, but his words have lived on and have resonance not just here but across continents where the struggle for peace continues.

Hume was a teacher who as a politician never forgot the importance of repetition in learning. He wanted the seeds of peace so embedded in the Irish psyche that the ownership of any eventual solution would belong to everyone.

Ian Knox cartoon 4/8/20 

Phrases were repeated some times ad nauseam. He was the master of what became known as the single transferable speech.

“Spill sweat, not blood”; “Where people are divided, the only solution is agreement”; “ A fundamental principle of peace is respect for diversity”; “Difference is the essence of humanity”.

All of these and more were central to his core belief that there was nothing to fear from engaging and everything to lose by not.

Hume said he did not seek to be a leader but merely to help people. And this colossus of a thinker, winner of the Nobel, Martin Luther King and Gandhi Peace Prizes, said that of all of his achievements, his greatest was involvement with the financial self-help organisation - the credit union. Millions of Irish credit union members would bear testimony to that today.

Unfazed by materialism, Hume gave away the entire financial proceeds of his awards to charities.

John Hume, the gifted Derry student from a working-class background, was amongst the first of his generation to recognise that education was the escape hatch out of the cycle of poverty that entrapped earlier generations.

He was imbued with a natural sense of justice. Prejudice did not colour Hume’s politics and he knew that addiction to mythical republican shibboleths didn’t put food on the table.

Most of all, he was a man of non-violence, even when violence was visited upon him whether at the end of a police baton, an army water cannon or by paramilitary thugs.

It was of little surprise when it was claimed that the IRA leadership once considered killing Hume and blaming it on loyalists.

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And yet it was Hume who would eventually bring the associates of his would-be assassins around to his way of thinking. No guns around, over or under the table was his mantra.

To his SDLP colleagues, Hume could be both an inspiring captain and a frustrating team player. He liked to hog the ball but they never failed to field when he asked.

Few could match his intellect or his instinctive ability to connect with voters and with Seamus Mallon, his back was always covered.

Sinn Féin may have since eclipsed the SDLP electorally but they have yet to match Hume’s popularity in the European elections.

And Hume was a true Europhile. His influence was unrivalled as a single SDLP MEP. Everyone in Strasbourg and Brussels knew who he was. He saw the European model of unity as a solution to the perennial unionist/nationalist crisis over identity.

It’s often said he sacrificed the SDLP for the peace process but in reality generational change was already occurring.

His wife Pat was his soul mate, comforter and confidant. When it comes to John Hume it's not clichéd to say we will never see his like again.

* Tom Kelly is a former vice-chairman of the SDLP


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John Hume