Reflections on the Life of John Hume

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SDLP leader John Hume walks towards Dublin’s Government Buildings before meeting the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern on December 4, 2000. (FP/CLH/Reuters)

A few years ago, at a dinner party in Oxford, I was approached by a young English academic who overheard my accent. 

“Are you from Northern Ireland?,” he asked nervously. 

Once I had confirmed his suspicions, he began to open up to me about the time his grandfather spent in my homeland as a British soldier during the Troubles, a half-century long nightmare of civil conflict in Ulster involving Protestant unionists, Catholic secessionists, and Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. 

“He served in Iraq and in Afghanistan, but he always said that neither was even close to being as bad as Belfast was in the ’70s. Hell on Earth.” 

It might surprise Americans to hear a seasoned soldier compare a country in Western Europe unfavorably with the Middle East in the context of security and civil strife, but the Northern Ireland conflict can give any global conflict in the last 50 years a run for its money when it comes to sheer and unremitting exhibitions of human depravity. Throughout the Troubles, the murder of pregnant women was often celebrated by the perpetrators as a two-for-one deal in the market of ethnic extermination, disabled children were executed as “collaborators” by paramilitary groups, and unhinged soldiers occasionally fired upon defenseless civilians for simply walking the streets of their own neighborhood. 

John Hume, who died yesterday at the age of 83, is receiving praise and plaudits from around the world for the central role he played in the Northern Ireland “peace process” of the 1990s, for which he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In order to understand the life of Mr. Hume, one has to first appreciate the fact that the political landscape in Northern Ireland is dominated by four political groups. The Democratic Unionist Party is a socially conservative, ethnically Protestant party that espouses a blood-and-soil commitment to Northern Ireland’s historic status as a state within the United Kingdom dominated by Protestant power and interests. It was founded as a cult of personality around the firebrand quasi-fascist preacher Ian Paisley and has historically had loose ties to violent paramilitary groups. The Ulster Unionist Party is the friendlier face of Unionism, committed to protecting Northern Ireland’s position in the U.K. through peaceful and civil methods. Secessionist politics is dominated by Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army terrorist group and the most prolific mass murderers of the entire conflict, and by the Social Democratic Labour Party, which pursues Irish unity through non-violent constitutional means.     

John Hume was the leader of the last of these four movements during the most important period in Northern Ireland’s history — the mid-to-late ’90s. He worked with all parties to secure the Belfast Agreement of 1998, which put an end to the Troubles and established the peace that I, as someone born in ’98, have lived under for my entire life. His resolute commitment to the peaceful pursuit of his political aims within the procedural constructs of the British constitution at a time when Ulster Catholics had many legitimate grievances against the British state is testimony enough to the man’s moral fiber. In that respect, he can serve as an exemplar of citizenship for Americans in the context of our own national conflicts, which do not even approach the scale of what was happening in Northern Ireland during the politically active years of John Hume’s life. His life and his example shame looters on the left and militias on the right in equal measure. His role in persuading Irish Americans to stop bankrolling Sinn Fein’s murder spree also singles him out as one of those rare politicians unwilling to take ethical short-cuts to reach ideological goals. 

It would be nice to end this post here, and most obituaries of Hume so far have done just that, celebrating his life in terms of uncomplicated admiration. When writing about the death of someone so clearly possessed of inordinate moral courage, it’s indeed tempting to wrap their life up in a neat and tidy bow of warm words and leave it at that. However, I would be remiss in my duties as a journalist and as an author of the “first draft of history” if I did not record here the biggest and most fatal mistake of John Hume’s entire career, which was his decision to bring Sinn Fein into the mainstream of Irish politics and to make them into a “partner in peace.” At the beginning of the 1990s, when the momentum for peace was building, the two dominant political parties in Northern Ireland were the non-violent moderate ones: David Trimble’s Ulster Unionists and John Hume’s SDLP. British and Irish intelligence agencies had furthermore infiltrated the IRA to the extent that its ability to effectively carry out a prolonged campaign of guerrilla warfare was on life support. At a time when IRA Sinn Fein had been all but comprehensively defeated by the joint efforts of Westminster and the Daíl Eireann in Dublin, Hume chose to tie himself and the fortunes of Northern Ireland to the success of the most depraved political group in the Western World — an organization with a higher murder rate of its captives than ISIS. As a result of Hume’s association with Sinn Fein, which bequeathed to them an altogether undeserved respectability, political defeat was snatched from the jaws of military victory in the intelligence war against the IRA. The set of political institutions established in 1998 naturally reflects the interests of the unionist and secessionist radicals whose approval was made the condition of political progress in Northern Ireland by Hume and other weak-willed moderates. As a result, the Northern Ireland in which I now live is jointly governed by IRA Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party after the peaceful parties that orchestrated the peace of ’98 negotiated moderate politics out of existence in a fatal, flawed, and darkly ironic fit of misjudgment. The final verdict on the life of John Hume must then be that he was a gifted leader marked by extraordinary moral courage whose public life was tainted in the end by a tragic error in judgement that legitimized the violence he abhorred and ensconced it firmly in the heart of government. 

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