John Hume – the man who laid the foundations for a new Ireland

One of the many admirable qualities of the late and unquestionably great John Hume was his ability to listen. As someone once said, courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. And John Hume possessed both.

He also gave new and positive meaning to a concept often derided – compromise, the recognition that through patient dialogue and respect you can find a way out of a dead end. By taking a huge political gamble in deciding to engage with Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams to seek a way out of the poisonous situation in Northern Ireland in the early 1990s, he laid the foundations for the Good Friday Agreement and for the Ireland in which we now live. Of course, there have been difficulties along the way. After such appalling bloodshed and hatred, could anything else be expected?

Hume was a community man throughout his life. A typical example was his being a founder member of Derry Credit Union, and he became the youngest president of the Irish League of Credit Unions at age 27. He served in the role from 1964 to 1968. He once said "all the things I've been doing, it's the thing I'm proudest of because no movement has done more good for the people of Ireland, north and south, than the Credit Union movement".

John Hume went on to be a prominent figure in the Derry Citizens' Action Committee. The DCAC was set up in the wake of the October 5 march through Derry, which had caused much attention to be drawn towards the situation in Northern Ireland. The purpose of the DCAC was to make use of the publicity surrounding recent events to bring to light grievances in Derry that had been suppressed by the Unionist Government for years. The DCAC, unlike the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA ), was aimed specifically at a local campaign, improving the situation in Derry for everyone, and maintaining a peaceful stance.

Hume became an Independent Nationalist member of the Stormont Parliament in 1969 at the height of the civil rights campaign. He was also a founding member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP ) of which he later became leader.

His devotion to the people of his native Derry was shown by the comments of Derry people after the announcement of his death. Said Mairead Nic Anridire: “My two brothers taught with John at St Columb’s College. He was a man of high intelligence and of the highest integrity. He was a people’s person.” Hugh McDaid observed: “He was the Derryman always there for you.”

In 1998, after the signing of the Good Friday agreement he was the joint recipient, along with David Trimble, of the Nobel Peace prize. In his eloquent address, he noted that “the Good Friday Agreement now opens a new future for all the people of Ireland. A future built on respect for diversity and for political difference. A future where all can rejoice in cherished aspirations and beliefs and where this can be a badge of honour, not a source of fear or division.

"The Agreement represents an accommodation that diminishes the self-respect of no political tradition, no group, no individual. It allows all of us – in Northern Ireland and throughout the island of Ireland – to now come together and, jointly, to work together in shared endeavour for the good of all. we owe this peace to the ordinary people of Ireland, particularly those of the North who have lived and suffered the reality of our conflict. No one is asked to yield their cherished convictions or beliefs. All of us are asked to respect the views and rights of others as equal of our own and, together, to forge a covenant of shared ideals based on commitment to the rights of all allied to a new generosity of purpose."

One of the most important things John Hume did was make it once more possible to be an Irish Nationalist without adherence to the physical force tradition. In this he showed himself to be in the line of great constitutional and parliamentary nationalists, like Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell. In so doing he did a great service for a tradition in this country that was at risk of being seriously devalued.

John Hume fits Aristotle’s definition of the magnanimous leader, (from magnanimitas; magnus, great, and animus, mind ). Greatness of mind - that elevation or dignity of soul, which encounters danger and trouble with tranquillity and firmness, which raises the possessor above revenge, and makes him delight in acts of benevolence, which makes him disdain injustice and meanness, and prompts him to sacrifice personal ease, interest and safety for the accomplishment of useful and noble objects. He does not bear a grudge, for it is not a mark of greatness of soul to recall things against people, especially the wrongs they have done you, but rather to overlook them. Such a leader needs to be one can who can nullify his ego, and concern himself only with those who he leads.

Such a man was John Hume.


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