We must always remember what John Hume taught us

(Credit: Alan Lewis – Photopress Belfast)

It is important to remember that though we now live in Hume’s Ireland, each of us has a duty to ensure it stays that way, writes Andrew Dunne. In the darkest days of the troubles, as bombs and bullets reverberated throughout the hills, towns and cities of Northern Ireland, hope was hard to come by. In a world where brutality reigned, a lone voice rang out from The Bogside; “We shall overcome”. 

It was the light of John Hume which illuminated the path to our enduring peace, ignited the flame of  a just society and led our island firmly towards a brighter future. Hume’s life and light has been celebrated as he has been laid to rest. Now, we must honour Hume by marching forward with the values and lessons he taught us and truth heavy in our collective conscience, ready to inspire future generations with a similar sense of spirit and determination.

Each of us is part of the first collective of generations living in an Ireland at peace. John Hume’s island, John Hume’s Ireland. We are no longer eternally scared for the collective destiny of those on our island. We no longer clench with fear listening to the evening news, preparing to hear reports of sectarian violence or of the degradation of civil rights. It is to John Hume we owe an unpayable debt; blessed are the peacemakers.

John Hume was unapologetically a nationalist, yet he recognised the humanity of all sects, communities and cultures, powerfully reminding us; “You can’t eat a flag.” In a time and place where people were all too often labelled, divided and punished based upon the accident of birth, John Hume preached words of undeniable, resounding truth: “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 the most fundamental principle of peace; respect for diversity.”

All across our nation in times past and present, we have witnessed needless travesties which denigrate our own basic humanity, degrade the moral fabric of our society and irrevocably punish those who were and who remain innocent. Our refusal to recognise the humanity of ‘the other’ is the single most destructive aspect of our collective history on this island  and in our wider world.

Forgiveness. Compassion. Remorse. Justice. These were and remain Hume’s necessary ingredients for an island and world worth sharing. We cannot treat two very different traditions as pieces of a puzzle that need to be forced together. It is only with respect and co-operation our collective future lies. Politics of spite and vengeance has no place on our island.

A border poll in the next few decades seems likely. We must not forget John Hume’s respect for those with whom he held profound disagreement. It is only when unionists feel at home that we will ever recognise the potential of our shared future. A plan for a united Ireland must be carefully constructed with the greatest attention to detail, a rapid and forceful border poll as advocated for by some would run contrary to John’s vision.  

To show moral leadership, as John Hume did, takes undeniable and herculean courage. The IRA considered killing Hume for the crime of building bridges rather than walls, as it almost undoubtedly also crossed the minds of unionist paramilitaries. The legacy of Hume is a testament to the value of moral leadership, courage and expression. A blueprint to the leaders of our generation lies within the life of Hume. Although standing up for what is right is all too often difficult in the extreme, history shows that those who carry such a burden are very often vindicated.

John Hume was a moderate in everything except his immovable commitment to peace. A social democrat to the core. It is important to remember that John’s style of politics provides the foundational context of the peace process. If Hume was stubborn in his ways he may never have met with Gerry Adams. As a nationalist, he may very well have been tempted to disregard the legitimacy of the British government. But compromise and pragmatism were the necessary keystones of the ceasefire and The Good Friday Agreement. 

A degree of credit to Gerry Adams is also due. Hume clearly abhorred violence, he correctly sensed many of those communities involved did not want to shed more blood. Adams, eventually, had grown tired of violence. His eventual recognition of politics and dialogue as the only sustainable path to freedom and peace in Ireland is commendable in the context of a time where sectarian violence, amongst unionist paramilitaries and Adams’ nationalist extremist ‘brothers’, was the default.

Hume’s SDLP, which has since regrettably lost significant ground to Sinn Féin, was the first glimmer of hope in Northern politics. A moderate and pragmatic nationalist party willing to engage with Westminster gave Hume legitimacy in the eyes of Britain and built bridges which allowed him to operate as the middle man in secret negotiations between the British government and the IRA, ultimately leading to the ceasefire and The Good Friday Agreement.

John also recognised the value of internationalism, multilateralism and associated institutions. Affectionately known by some in Washington as ‘The 101st Senator for Northern Ireland”, Hume made Northern Ireland an issue of utmost urgency and importance to four consecutive administrations. Without his uncanny ability to extend his hand and vision outwards, it is possible the United States may never have become involved in the peace process. 

John Hume was a giant of European integration, he recognised the EEC as the definitive and remarkable proof of humanities ability to come together. Only 30 years after the end of the Second World War, Hume stood on a bridge at the French-German border upon the Rhine, reflecting on the improbability of a united Europe. Yet, it happened. It surely inspired him to strive for the impossible peace in Northern Ireland. We should discard the unsubstantiated notion of improbability when it comes to peace, we must defend European unity.

Our generation must acknowledge the value of diplomacy, extending our hand to the world. If it were not for the leadership of John Major, Tony Blair, George Mitchell and Bill Clinton, it is quite possible The Good Friday Agreement would be a laughable notion today. 

It is often forgotten that John Major was key to establishing a dialogue and laying the foundations of the peace process, sometimes to the dismay of his own party colleagues.When talks became public, John Major’s reputation and career was under threat. Major showed leadership and character when it wasn’t particularly politically expedient. 

Although Tony Blair’s legacy has been partially tarnished by Iraq, he sought to understand Northern Ireland, all communities, not to impose the will of the British state. Imposition had seemed to be the default in Anglo-Irish diplomacy for centuries before. Blair paved and completed the necessary and commendable path, his greatest achievement is often forgotten at home. 

Hume was born into a world on the brink of the most destructive conflict humanity has ever witnessed. John was 8 years old when the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A man who inherited a world of violence and tragedy. Upon his death, Hume had seen his vision of peace recognised through his work, both in his beloved Derry and on this island. A life well lived.

John Hume has left the world a recognisably better place than the one he was born into, something we should all aspire to. Few are so lucky as to have their life’s work vindicated before their very eyes. Like Mandela, Dr. King and many others, John Hume fought the moral and peaceful fight, he was rewarded with the gift of a resolute and previously impossible peace. John will remain a giant of peace in our history for as long as it written. 

A society without inherent equality as a foundational doctrine represents, in a final sense, the theft of the dreams and potential from our future generations. It is we who remain who must carry the burden of John’s vision, to deliver a message of hope, unity, peace and justice. To carry and advance John Hume’s lessons and legacy, to remember in situations of injustice and violence that we shall overcome. To recognise above all; we are all accidents of birth.