John Hume emerged in 1964 as a modernising voice within the stale and defeated world of Catholic Nationalist politics in Northern Ireland – a world in which the Unionists seemed to hold all the cards, including their relative prosperity on the island of Ireland.
His first major intervention was to insist that the credo of Unionism could not be reduced to sectarian bigotry. It was, at that time, a liberating and progressive notion. When the archaic elements of Unionism were exposed by the civil rights movement in 1968-69, Hume emerged as an articulate spokesman for reform. In 1970 the reformist politics of the Civil Rights Movement were displaced by the rise of political violence and the IRA. Hume, to his enduring credit, always opposed violence and narrow nationalism – he liked to quote his father: 'You can't eat a flag'.
At the beginning of June 1970, Nell McCafferty published an evocative article in the Irish Times on 'Anarchy in the Bogside'. It was a horrifying picture of mounting rancid tribalism. In the middle of this stands John Hume, alone on the streets, fighting for decent values and the importance of preserving human life. It is an image which should never be forgotten.
Hume’s high point of influence came in 1985 when he supported the imposition of the Anglo-Irish Agreement; it has to be said that in the run up to the Agreement he comprehensively outmanoeuvred an inert Unionist political class. But the violence, despite the naive hopes of the British government, continued to escalate. In 1988-89 he opened up a dialogue with Gerry Adams in which he tried to sell the Provos the principle of consent, which he based on Charles Parnell's Belfast speech of May 1891. This dialogue infuriated Unionists who saw it as legitimising the IRA and, it should be added, it infuriated the deputy leader of the SDLP Seamus Mallon as well.
Nonetheless Hume stuck to his themes and they are reflected strongly in the Good Friday Agreement, alongside strong protections for the Unionist position negotiated by David Trimble. The two men were to share the Nobel Peace Prize a year later.
Paul Bew is a cross-bench peer and a member of the John Hume Foundation