John Hume, the first and the greatest of the Irish peacemakers, has died aged 83. Few political leaders are truly indispensable, but it remains difficult to imagine a Northern Irish peace process without John Hume. Without Hume’s questing belief that peace was not only desirable but possible, there might have been no peace process at all.
For two decades Hume served as leader of the SDLP and, more significantly, the moral centre of Northern Irish politics. Like so many others, he knew injustice and discrimination; unlike too many others, he did not allow that experience to strangle his own humanity. Though a more complicated man than his sometimes-saintly reputation now suggests – for he was not untinged by vanity – he had the courage to see possibility where others spied only despair. The discovery that there could be a better way owed much to John Hume’s imagination.
He had partners, of course, not the least of whom was his long serving deputy Seamus Mallon, who died earlier this year. Mallon’s moral fortitude was never in doubt either and his death should have been more widely noted in the rest of the United Kingdom than it was – Hume’s passing is an opportunity to correct that oversight.
But it was Hume, above all others, who insisted that the gun should have no place in Irish politics. Hume who appreciated that while the realities of allegiance in Ulster could not be wished away, those realities could still be accommodated without recourse to violence. This was his star; his constant. For Hume, difference was the essence of the human condition but difference demanded respect, not hatred; difference was something to be accommodated, not wished away. Once accommodated, we might be surprised to discover how trivial some of those differences had always been. In this, as in much else, he was at root an indefatigable optimist.
Many factors, including the IRA’s strategic military defeat, were required before peace could be consecrated. Unlike some, Hume appreciated that murder was murder and remained so, even if notionally committed in the service of ‘our’ cause. Unblinkingly, steadfastly, he refused to be softer on green than he was on orange.
That took courage, not least since it made him an object of suspicion in certain quarters. Sinn Fein and the IRA were not merely opposed to Ulster Unionists and the British presence in Northern Ireland, they were actively hostile to John Hume, the SDLP, and Irish nationalists too. Shamefully, there were some in other parts of the United Kingdom, including in the Labour party, who took the side of the Provisionals. If they were capable of shame, those people should be doubly ashamed today.
If the Northern Irish peace process was an imperfect creature, only fools consider it a journey made at too great a price. That cost, however, should not be forgotten. It is a measure of Hume’s greatness – a powerful word, but an appropriate one in this instance – that he, with Mallon, helped create the conditions that led to the evisceration of their own party, and did it anyway.
In that respect Hume and Mallon were ahead of the people they were trusted to represent. Like moderate Unionism, moderate Nationalism was hollowed-out by the peace process. The centre was weakened rather than strengthened, and the government of Northern Ireland has since been entrusted to less respectable parties. Deplorable and unjust as this may have been, some alternatives would have been even worse. Good things contain disagreeable things too.
But Hume grasped the reality that nation is an imagined space, capable of existing on multiple layers. Sometimes these will overlap; at other times they operate in distinct areas of their own. Ireland, like Britain, contains multitudes and many of these are most acutely found in Ulster. The architecture of the peace settlement reflects this and, in so doing, articulates the complicated and often ironic lived experience of the Northern Irish peoples themselves. Irish and British, and depending on perspective, sometimes radically both or neither; Ulster is a Pushmi-Pullyu province.
John Hume did more to make that reality understood than any other political leader in Ireland or the United Kingdom. Without him, there might have been no peace process; without him, any peace process might have been a lesser thing. Few men in our lifetimes have served their country with greater distinction.