John Hume loved Derry and it loved him
JOHN Hume often attributed his drive for peace and justice to his upbringing in Derry.
No matter where in the world the former SDLP leader was and no matter who he was talking to, Hume was first and last a Derry man.
It was at his family table that he was first exposed to the self-help ethos for which the city was famous.
It was also in Derry that he was exposed to unionist domination and discrimination. He saw at first hand the impact of gerrymandering.
He also witnessed the effects of poverty among his neighbours, something which led him to champion the Credit Union movement, eventually becoming its Irish president.
Derry was also where he learned – from his father – that pure nationalism didn’t feed families.
He often recalled watching a political street meeting by the old Nationalist Party. Fired up by the sight of the Irish tricolour and the rousing words of the speakers, he was brought back to earth when his father told him, “Remember son, you can’t eat a flag.”
His home city was proud of the St Columb’s boy who was able to stand up to unionist leaders. Even Sinn Féin supporters who opposed him – and on occasions that opposition was vicious – took a pride in Hume.
While the past should never be viewed through rose-tinted glasses, it is a fact that when other areas were becoming more and more polarised, Hume also won admiration from unionists in Derry.
He counted among his closest friends the late Marlene Jefferson, former unionist mayor of the city.
Hume recognised that to advance an alternative to violence and war, an alternative to the grinding poverty which laid the foundations of strife had to be found.
When he was at his most powerful, he set about dealing with poverty as much as political process; he set about bringing work to the north and to Derry.
Embracing the changing world of technology, his stated aim was to make the Foyle Valley the Silicon Valley of Europe. It was Hume who almost single-handedly persuaded Seagate Technology to come to Derry.
On a visit to California, he heard that one of the global giant’s senior vice presidents was called Hegarty. That was enough; he went into overdrive, eventually finding an Irish connection and better still a Donegal connection.
He managed to persuade the company to visit Derry and it remains one of the city’s biggest employers.
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In 1995, when President Bill Clinton visited Ireland, Hume managed to ensure the most powerful politician in the world came to Derry.
The US president told thousands of people at Guildhall Square: “I know that at least twice already I have had the honour of hosting John and Pat in Washington. And the last time I saw him I said, you can't come back to Washington one more time until you let me come to Derry. And here I am.”
President Clinton was just one of many world leaders brought to Derry by Hume.
Others included Kofi Annan, the late Senator Ted Kennedy, and the former speaker at the US House of Representatives Tip O’Neill.
When Derry City Football Club found itself in financial difficulties in 2003, Hume – as club president – used his European Union contacts to bring some of the biggest names in world football to Brandywell.
Brazilian legend Ronaldinho made his debut for Barcelona against the Candy Stripes. He was joined by Dutch stars Patrick Kluivert and Marc Overmars as well as Spain’s Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Carlos Puyol.
When illness struck and his memory started to fade, his home town also took Hume to its bosom.
If seen walking in the street, strangers would stop to check he was all right and make sure he got home safely.
Hume was the only man who could, and did, stop the traffic in Derry.
It is not a myth that even the city’s busy four-lane Strand Road would come to a halt if John Hume wanted to cross. It happened many times.
Hume loved Derry and, in turn, Derry loved him.