John Hume

John Hume was an absolutely unique force in politics in the North of Ireland. He stood head and shoulders above every other constitutional nationalist politician in political ability. He was indispensable to the Peace Process and its success and the achievement of the Good Friday settlement. His community was very fortunate it found a man of his calibre to lead it through very difficult times to a position of equality. But his actual political skill and talent could not be explained properly by those charged in writing his obituary.

John Hume, the Derry schoolteacher, first came to notice through some articles he wrote for The Irish Times during May 1964. These were published under the heading ‘The Northern Catholic’. In the series Hume questioned what he called “traditional nationalist attitudes” toward ‘Northern Ireland’ which he saw as having run their course, after a generation of failure. From the time of Partition the Northern Catholic community had aspired to make itself independent of the statelet it had been marooned within and to live in its own social framework in readiness for a future transference to an all-Ireland state. Hume urged the alienated Catholic community to give up on its boycott of ‘Northern Ireland’ and to play a fuller part in its political and economic life, to demonstrate to the unionist community that nationalists could be trusted and that discrimination was unnecessary.

The Nationalist Party, which had been disorientated by Taoiseach Lemass’s sudden order to enter Stormont, attempted to lure Hume into its ranks, but he would have none of it. Hume had made up his mind that Eddie M’Ateer’s party was dead wood and determined upon developing a new form of politics that the reluctant, “stuck in its ways,” Nationalist Party was incapable of. Hume, however, went along with Lemass’s fantasy that what was needed in the North was an opposition at Stormont to the Unionist Party. It was this that generated the frustration among Catholics that led to the streets, after the Stormont opposition proved a charade, as it impotently confronted the reality of permanent Unionist government and its resistance to nationalist demands.

Hume maintained a distance from the emerging Civil Rights Association until the end of 1968, when it began to gain momentum. He had refused to endorse the famous Derry march, fearing violent confrontation. Others, however, calculated that violent confrontation was just what was needed in the circumstances to break up the Unionist regime. One thing led to another and the August 1969 explosion in Derry and Belfast was the result.

Hume gave his verdict on the Civil Rights Association to Eamonn Gallagher of the Republic’s Department of External Affairs in September 1969. It was so sensitive Hume’s name was redacted in the state papers. Hume said “the Civil Rights policy had succeeded where an overt nationalist policy had not but the ultimate objective was the same”. (NAI, TSCH 2000/6/657)

That rather confirmed what Unionists had been saying about NICRA so it was decided not to have it attributed to Hume.

In the immediate aftermath of August 1969 John Hume determined on a policy of first trying an internal accommodation between Unionists and Nationalists at Stormont, in which ‘British’ Unionists were split from the Ulsterish bigoted element and a coalition of moderates formed from the two communities. If this proved impossible he was in favour of a period of Direct Rule to force a left/right realignment in politics.

This was impossible, of course, outside the politics of the State, and it also ran into the problem that Westminster was determined to maintain the 1920 devolved structures to keep the province at arm’s length if at nearly all costs. Only something new and of great vigour could shift Britain from this policy, and that had to be provided by the Provisional IRA, rather than the SDLP, which once formed followed the routine of the Nationalist Party it replaced at Stormont. Hume and his new colleagues, led by Gerry Fitt, went through the charade of forming an “official opposition” and Hume condemned proposals for Direct Rule as bringing about “evils that might be worse than at present” in which NI became “a mere outpost of London” (Irish News, 5.1.70). Whilst Fitt led the party, once British Labour let the province be in its communal quagmire, Hume quickly came to direct it as  instrument of his own policy taking the important decisions.

In June 1971 Brian Faulkner, the most able Unionist leader, made an unprecedented offer to the SDLP of committee chairs in Stormont. This was significant after 50 years of exclusive one-party Unionist rule. It was a moment of truth for the SDLP – was it interested in an internal accommodation with Unionism? Hume initially welcomed the offer as a measure of the changed situation in which a deal could be done, only to suddenly backdown after a couple of youths were controversially shot in Derry by the British Army. The SDLP leader, Fitt, was appalled at Hume’s about turn, which shot down the chance of an accommodation with Unionists and his public declaration for Direct Rule, against party policy. Hume’s rejection of Faulkner’s offer subsequently gave great momentum to the Provos’ stated objective of “Smash Stormont” and their bombing campaign accelerated, leading to Faulkner adopting a military solution, internment, to the problem. Conflict escalated greatly.

With Internment and Bloody Sunday the Provos determined the course of events. Hume led the parallel civil disobedience campaign and established and became President of the Alternative Assembly at Dungiven. The Attorney General, Basil Kelly, was asked to consider whether this was a serious attempt to form an illegal underground government but concluded it was a harmless farce that would disappear if it were ignored. He was right.

From the underground administration, via the Irish Times, Hume called for a public declaration by the British Government in favour of Irish unity that would break the “Unionist ascendancy.” This was the genesis of his policy of the next decade, that urged upon Westminster the breaking of the “Unionist veto” on “progress” which could be meant to mean reform, but which actually inferred an active united Ireland policy that Protestant Ulster had no right to obstruct.

After the January massacre in Derry Hume took the British Government to the United Nations, when Dublin thought better of the idea, after its experience of a year and a half previously. He was, of course, rebuffed as Britain had the UN stitched up, but it was the first incidence of Hume going international to manoeuvre against the British Government.

The Provos’ Bloody Friday massacre enabled Whitelaw to get the SDLP back into the realm of constitutional politics and Hume was used to tip off the IRA before the 23,000 Motorman assault. Prime Minister Heath had advised his commanders that up to 100 deaths were acceptable in the recapture of the no-go areas but the Provos decided to retire and live to fight another day. With the military ascendancy being lost to the British this enabled the SDLP and Hume to regain ground and take centre stage again in negotiations.

The details of the Sunningdale Agreement and Executive need not be gone into here. Suffice to say Hume and the SDLP overplayed their hand in a situation of declining Republican military power. Hume underestimated the power of the Protestant working class, which was considerable in the days before Mrs Thatcher destroyed Ulster’s industrial base. Hume demanded that the British Army suppress the Ulster Workers Council strike and “call the Unionist bluff” but Protestant society, which Hume and the other SDLP leaders, had little understanding of, showed its power and that it was a separate nation in Ireland. Coupled with the bungling of the new Labour Government the suicidal behaviour of the SDLP, which misconstrued Faulkner’s reasonableness for weakness, lost the chance of an internal settlement. Hume had to think again.

After the fall of the Executive Hume fell out with Dublin. He demanded that Dublin and the British force power-sharing on the Unionists. Hume fell hook line and sinker for the withdrawal propaganda issued by the NIO as a cover for the British Ulsterisation policy and began to urge Dublin and London into more and more fantastic schemes for repressing the loyalists through military force if necessary. Dublin’s will was, of course, broken by then and it was becoming clear to Hume that the Northern Catholics were on their own. At this point Hume decided to take over direct control of the SDLP from the expendable Fitt.

Around this time Hume came up with the terminology of the “two traditions” to magic away the national division that was apparent and undeniable in the North. The word “tradition” hardly does justice to the complete absence of collective feeling between the Unionist and Nationalist communities. It was a deadly national division that had pre-existed the War and which had been exacerbated by the construction of ‘Northern Ireland’ and the War it had ultimately generated. Hume devised a policy that involved an intricate juggling of words and which was articulated in a form that became known as ‘Humespeak.’ It involved not quite saying something but being heard by some people as if one thing was being said whilst others heard something else as being said. It aimed to bamboozle the more simple-minded and straight talking Unionists.

In 1977, with nationalism at a low ebb and the SDLP falling apart, Hume decided that a fundamental shift was needed to rejuvenate ‘Constitutional’ Nationalism and alter the situation. He diagnosed the problem as being “intransigent Unionism” and the inaction of the British government. Hume reckoned that the problem needed to be taken out of the purely British context by reintroducing the reluctant Irish government into the political process and getting London and Dublin to work together to advance a political settlement in ‘Northern Ireland’, despite the Unionists. The objective was to get the British and Irish governments to impose new political structures over the heads of Unionism to create a whole new ball-game. This was sometimes referred to as ‘the totality of relationships.’ It was a tall order but Hume stuck to his guns.

Hume removed the focus on trying to achieve an internal settlement with Unionists who were determined to hang on to their majority in a new sub-government. Along with this Hume went to the US and Europe to cultivate relationships with important people that could be employed in the future against Britain and the Unionists. Particularly important in this were the links developed with Irish-America. This was an important characteristic that Hume shared with Republicans – the ability to open up new fronts when progress on the battlefield was halted by Unionist or British resistance. It was something which the rest of the SDLP, including the previous leadership lacked.

Hume’s strategy was clever because it took things outside the 1920 Act, employing forces that were beyond the confines of ‘Northern Ireland’ to which Northern Catholics were confined. Gerry Fitt’s British horizons were inadequate to a breakout due to Westminster’s insistence that ‘Northern Ireland’ remain in its own political quarantine lest the virus in its politics spread to the British body politic.

One result of this clever strategy was the elevation of Hume into the role of ‘statesman’ – the first ‘statesman’ without an actual state to represent. This injected a new vigour into Irish diplomacy in relation to the North, led by Hume, which the diplomats and political representatives of the actual Irish State were dragged into. This had an important result with regard to the relationship between the two parts of the Irish Nation in that as Dublin lost its vigour with relation to the North it was taken up by Hume, determined that the Northern Catholics would not be let down as they had been in 1970 and previous times by the South.

However, the SDLP was in the doldrums from 1975 until 1981 and it was only given a new opportunity through the Republican rejuvenation brought about by political fall out from the Hunger Strikes.

Hume’s great achievement, The Hillsborough Treaty of 1985, came about not as a result of his efforts through the New Irish Forum but because of the political crisis that saw Sinn Fein emerge as an electoral force and a military crisis brought about by the Brighton bomb, which encouraged Mrs Thatcher to do something she was very reluctant to do. As a result of this crisis the British attempted to undermine the Republican political and military expressions through a deal with ‘Constitutional Nationalism’. The ‘Out! Out! Out!’ episode nearly shattered the ‘Constitutional’ Nationalist bulwark Britain relied upon and something had to be done by Britain to re-balance things (and Thatcher was bereft of an alternative policy). The British knew the central importance of Hume in any deal with Dublin but also that if an acceptable agreement was not produced there was the danger of losing the SDLP altogether. Senior figures in the British State persuaded a reluctant Thatcher to do business with Dublin.

After the signing of the Hillsborough Treaty Hume told the Irish Times (23.11.85): “We arrived where we are without the assistance of Sinn Fein and we shall not require their assistance in the future.” 

How wrong he was proved on both counts. And he, himself, proved it.

The Irish negotiator from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Michael Lillis, later revealed that Dublin only took in Hume into their confidence during the negotiations with the British. The rest of the SDLP was not trusted, because they would have let the cat out of the bag in their desire to taunt the Unionists, until just before the bombshell at Hillsborough. The Unionists were to be overridden by something that would take them by surprise and which they could not touch. The negotiations that resulted in what happened at Hillsborough had to be conducted behind closed doors because the Unionists were a substantial community who could not be sold out by an “ascendancy” element – something which the community was often characterised as consisting of by Nationalism. Hume took himself outside the country for months to avoid his colleagues.

This was the moment when the SDLP was understood to be a busted flush by all important players. From then on it was merely John Hume’s catspaw.

Interviewed on BBC Radio’s ‘File on Four’ on December 3rd 1985 Hume said that the Treaty would be of little value if the Unionists did not come out in substantial opposition to it in order for their opposition to be faced down by Britain. It was Hume’s view that the Unionist mind could only be changed after a decisive conflict had occurred with their government at Westminster which the Unionists would lose: “once that boil is lanced, then you will find the Unionist population for the first time in a position where they must talk to their neighbours.”

Hillsborough certainly traumatised the Unionist community like nothing else – much more so than the IRA campaign. But it failed because it did not provide Thatcher with a defeat of the Provos and security actually deteriorated as a result. She rowed back from a fuller implementation of it, seeing meagre advantage, much to Hume’s frustration.

It is sometimes suggested that Hillsborough was a success. The only thing that could be said for it, however, was a thing that its advocates did not want to say for it: it softened up the Unionists for a devolutionary settlement. And when the Unionists came out of the wilderness to the SDLP eager for a devolution deal Hume pulled the plug! This was the vital moment at Duisburg that has all but been forgotten.

There was by then another game in town as well as the Hillsborough Treaty. What is known as the Peace Process had its origin in the late 1970s when sections of the higher command of the Republican movement began to draw the conclusion that military victory was impossible and the conflict was going to end at the negotiating table. The objective of the Republican high command was a difficult one: to pursue a political strategy that led toward an acceptable peace, short of the formal objective, whilst maintaining Republican military capacity at an effective level.

The sequence of the Peace Process as it developed during the mid-1980s should be stated clearly: It started within the Republican command, around Gerry Adams; it availed of the unique figure of Charles J. Haughey to kick-start it; it was facilitated by the Redemptorist Priest, Fr. Alec Reid; it then took in John Hume, who blocked his party from the devolutionary course it had set itself upon. It finally began to take in other elements of Fianna Fail and the SDLP, before utilising the important force of Irish-America against the British State.

The policy instituted by Thatcher and Taoiseach Fitzgerald at Hillsborough ultimately failed in its stated objectives and Hume decided to give way to the Adams/Fr. Reid Peace initiative that Haughey was facilitating. In conjunction with the Republican leadership around Adams another direction for political development was then carved out which aimed at a more comprehensive and enduring Peace settlement that would finally end the Ice Age in politics that had been brought about at Hillsborough. This prospect was irresistible for Hume.

For a long time afterwards it was presumed, and the SDLP Leader was of the belief, that his talks with Gerry Adams had begun the Peace Process rather than, as really happened, it originated through the Adams/Fr. Reid/Haughey axis. Hume had been ‘protected’ from this information for his own good at the time, lest his party colleagues and others in Dublin should learn of the tentative growth and ruin it all. It all remained hidden from the SDLP and from those outside of Haughey’s close circle to prevent it being assailed by the mainstream of ‘Constitutional Nationalism’ and destroyed, until Fr. Reid was instructed, by Haughey, to make tentative contacts with Hume, who was felt trustworthy enough to be let in on what was going on. Hume had been taken into Taoiseach’s Fitzgerald’s confidence prior to Hillsborough and had remained water tight-lipped about it to maintain the element of surprise against Unionists.

What is apparent is that the primary objective of many within the SDLP, particularly the high-profile figures outside of Hume, was to use Hillsborough as a lever on Unionists to establish a return to devolution with the 1985 Treaty acting as a kind of fall-back device pinning the Unionists into some form of power-sharing with the SDLP.

This account is not meant to relegate Hume’s role in the Peace. Hume was absolutely indispensible to it. However, the standard account of Hume’s role is false. Hume’s crucial contribution to the Peace was in scuppering what the British and Dublin had intended for the SDLP at Hillsborough and in throwing his weight behind the other process that was developing through Adams, Fr. Reid and Haughey. That made all the difference to what subsequently was to occur in 1998. The moment where Hume accomplished this was in the obscure goings on at Duisburg.

One of the chief British objectives in agreeing to the Hillsborough Treaty was to lure the SDLP into a devolved government with Unionists that would replace Direct Rule. The British saw Hume as the main obstacle to such an internal settlement and 6 months before the Hillsborough Treaty was revealed, they sounded the SDLP leader out in a meeting where he was assured about the concessions Britain was prepared to make.

The moment for Hume and the SDLP to fulfill their part of the bargain arrived 3 years later at Duisburg, after the Unionists had been made, at last, pliable. However, whilst the SDLP had been hooked (like a 3 pound trout?) Hume refused to take the bait.

The British had invested considerable political resources, including the unprecedented Hillsborough concession itself, to bolster Hume and Dublin against Sinn Fein and now Hume betrayed that faith and went over to the Republican Peace process. This set everything on a path that Britain never intended and which the SDLP never expected.

Currie, McGrady, Hendron and Mallon had wanted to see a devolved power-sharing government established within ‘Northern Ireland’ on the basis of Article 4 of the Hillsborough Treaty. Hume let the devolutionists go through the motions before he calculated, after his talks with Adams, that an all-Ireland settlement which included Sinn Fein should be held out for rather than surrendering the position hard-won at Hillsborough.

Hume saw that the Treaty of 1985 had failed in its objectives and would, at best, only lead back to the situation of Sunningdale in 1974. That was good enough for many in the SDLP, but not for Hume any more, especially since he became aware of the wider peace initiative that involved Haughey and the Irish Government. Hume decided to bank the main gains attained at Hillsborough with its all Ireland component and the Dublin’s role in ‘Northern Ireland’. He then focused his efforts on the all-Ireland settlement which included Dublin and Sinn Fein. The devolutionists were shot down and shoved aside where the remained in disgruntlement but preserving their careers.

Hume’s adaption to a pan-Nationalism with Sinn Fein to achieve a wider settlement beyond devolution, won out through the powerful combination Haughey had enabled. And this was a watershed. If it had just been the SDLP, without Hume, there would have been no Peace Process and Good Friday Agreement. It was a product of the Republican Leadership around Adams, with Haughey’s facilitation, plus the strategic vision of John Hume. A confluence had been achieved of two separated rivers than now became a powerful force.

What Hume achieved through his alliance with Adams in the Peace Process, and then under the GFA, was to undo the separation of physical force and constitutional nationalism brought about by the Arms Crisis. The sudden Volte face by the Lynch Government in 1970, under pressure from the British, had shattered the potential emergence of a slightly-constitutional nationalism behind the barricades which would have kept the Catholic community united with the power of the Southern State behind them. Hume and Adams repaired the damage done by Lynch’s retreat from the North. The Northern Catholics began to punch their weight.

Former IRA Volunteer, Anthony McIntyre, commenting in his blog, The Pensive Quill, on Hume’s passing noted:

“The Good Friday Agreement made sense for him and he was consistent in driving for it because it was the outworking of what he believed. For republicans it was a mockery of everything they fought for. Hume’s pre GFA politics made the GFA logical. Republican pre-GFA politics made the GFA illogical. Ultimately, the GFA was not worth one single death. Point is Hume didn’t take one single life to obtain it.”

In an ideal world what came about in 1998 could have come about through an evolutionary reform. However, ‘Northern Ireland’ was as far removed as you could get from an ideal world. The unfortunate fact of life in Westminster’s political slum was that Hume would never have achieved the Good Friday Agreement without others being prepared to take life to alter the situation they found themselves in.

In essence what separated Gerry Adams and John Hume from others within the ranks is that they had, through the political experience of two decades, developed an understanding of the continuum that existed between Constitutional and non-constitutional Nationalism. This included an awareness of the limitations of both. They appreciated that a combination was essential for the progress of their community and were prepared to ditch the dogmatic positions held by others.  That was the secret of what happened.

And that was the greatest political achievement of John Hume.

Hume was a very effective politician who was always ready and able to improvise. When he made mistakes and his policies failed he was able to avail of new circumstances created by other forces outside of his control to push his own political agenda forward. He always maintained, from the beginning, that the key to success for his community was to split Unionism whilst unifying his own, less powerful community. He achieved this objective in 1998, doing a deal with Trimble which brought about the Good Friday Agreement and the current position. Skilfully he maintained the SDLP behind him, whilst nullifying his colleagues devolutionary proclivities that would have led down another dead-end.

He put his community before party, and Dublin, and rightfully so.

Published in The Irish Political Review September 2020

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