John Hume has been a central figure in the politics of Northern Ireland for over twenty years. He is a political leader in the Nationalist community and served as a powerful proponent for the spirit of compromise that was instrumental in finally bringing peace to Ireland after many years of violent and deadly conflict that had cost the lives of some 3,000 people.
Hume was born in Derry in Northern Ireland On January 18, 1937. His grandfather came from Scotland. His father, Sam Hume, was a poor, intelligent and a self-educated man. At forty-six, his father married Annie Doherty. Sam Hume became permanently unemployed at age fifty-five. He used the time he had available to him to help local shopkeepers with their bookkeeping using his knowledge and understanding of such matters.
Hume was profoundly influenced by his father's altruism and strong sense of compassion. His mother, although poorly educated, was socially active and community-minded; she would often go out of her way to help those who were in need. One of his mother's comments to Hume would remain with him throughout his life – "John always remember that the bottle is half full not half empty" and "if you're reared in your bare feet, you'll never get pneumonia in the snow – in other words it's what you get used to." This strength of character and pragmatism that his parents exemplified obviously had a powerful impact on Hume.
As a result of his father's insistence on the importance of a good education, Hume entered Maymooth where most priests went for their theological education. As a student he was subjected to a strict regimen of prayer and silent meditation. The instructional perspective stressed the use of reason and rational judgment. As a student, Hume discovered that he had an aptitude for language. These aspects of his education would serve him well later in life. In the course of his studies, however, he came to understand that the priestly life was unsuitable for him. In addition, he developed a stomach disorder and left without qualification.
In order to understand the long standing enmity that existed between the Irish and the British, it is important to have an historic perspective. Ever since the landing of King Henry II's Norman host in the twelfth century on the shores of Ireland, the enmity between the Irish and the British had been incessant. Although Queen Elizabeth I, Oliver Cromwell and King William III all tried to control Ireland and its people, they were essentially unsuccessful. Numerous attempts were made to introduce colonies of Protestants from Scotland as a way to subdue the native population. Invariably, these transplants would be absorbed into the local culture with the exception of Ulster County. Only in this Northern Province did this strategy meet with any success.
Hume came to realize that in order to break the cycle of violence and retribution that seemed to be insoluble, the real solution lied in pursuing a non-violent agenda. He became the leader of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s that helped end decades of discrimination against the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland. Much of Hume's success depended on the fact that he is an exceedingly astute politician. Unlike many of his Irish contemporaries, Hume understood the need to be global in viewpoint. He made many friends in both Europe and America, especially Senator Edward Kennedy from the United States. He used these well-place connections to enlist broad support for his agenda.
Hume became one of the founders of the Social Democratic and Labour Parties (SDLP). His ultimate goal was to facilitate the end of partition with a reformist agenda. He worked assiduously to thwart a revision of guerilla warfare by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). In the process, he came under immense pressure from the both the Republicans and the Loyalists. For this reason, he enlisted help from one of his influential friends, namely, Senator Edward Kennedy.
As a result of these efforts the Anglo-Irish Framework was established in 1980. This would set the stage for the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed in 1985. This was a wide-ranging document that set in motion the basis for agreement between the government of the United Kingdom and Ireland, especially in regards to the status of Northern Ireland.
He sought a dialogue with Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein (the political arm of the IRA), in the hopes of finally ending the violence that had gone on for twenty-five years. These ongoing talks were referred to as the Hume-Adams dialogue. The end result was the Downing Street Declaration. It affirmed the right of the people of Northern Ireland to self-determination, and that the rule of the province would be transferred to the Republic of Ireland from the United Kingdom provided that a majority of its population was in favor of such a move. Hume had managed to persuade Northern Republicans that the democratic path was the only way to achieve true political progress. On August 31, 1994, the IRA agreed to a ceasefire. This was a remarkable achievement that was the culmination of years of dedicated, persistent, astute and courageous effort.
Immediately following the ceasefire, an historic meeting occurred on September 6, 1994 that was attended by Hume, Gerry Adams and Albert Reynolds. The statement that was issued as a result of this meeting follows, "We are at the beginning of a new era in which we are all totally and absolutely committed to democratic and peaceful methods of resolving our political problems. We reiterate that our objective is an equitable and lasting agreement that can command the allegiance of all. We see the Forum as a major instrument in that process. We reiterate that we cannot resolve this problem without the participation and agreement of the Unionist people. We call on everyone to use all their influence to bring this agreement about."
One month following this meeting, a Loyalist ceasefire was announced, and on October 29, 1994, a Forum for Peace and Reconciliation was convened in Dublin and attended by the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party modeled after the approach taken by the South African government after the fall of Apartheid.
As a result of his monumental efforts, Hume was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998. An excerpt from his acceptance speech is shown below:
"All conflict is about difference, whether the difference is race, religion or nationality The European visionaries decided that difference is not a threat, difference is natural. Difference is of the essence of humanity. Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace - respect for diversity."
John Hume had succeeded where many who preceded him had failed. As we have seen so many times before, this remarkable achievement was do in many respects to his perseverance, the courage of his convictions, his ability to inspire others and his love of and belief in humanity and optimism regarding the human condition.