UK Politics

John Hume: his life and legacy

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‘The future for a more liberal Ireland lay with the advanced thinkers of the north’, wrote Marianne Elliot, by way of describing the idealism of Wolfe Tone. That sentiment was then embodied more than a century after Tone’s death in the life and work of John Hume.

Now and then there arises in a nation a figure who transcends ordinary political discourse and achieves the status of icon. They become as much ideas as they are people, cemented within a culture like a song. Two examples of this acclaim, albeit in very different ways, are John Hume and Ian Paisley who characterised Northern Ireland; it’s better angels, and its worst excesses.

Paisley was akin to a military general, rousing a rabble and leading them into a battle that many of them would not come back from. Hume, on the other hand, was a teacher. That is where he began his career, and that is what shaped his approach to politics.

The chief components of the teaching profession are lecturing and paperwork. The former demands an intellect, and an ability to connect with people and convey knowledge to them; the latter requires patience and attention to detail of near superpower proportions. Hume was adept at both.

He had learnt that to teach a person an idea, it could be necessary to repeat, repeat, repeat yourself. He coined the term ‘single transferable speech’ to describe often used lines such as ‘spill sweat, not blood’ and encouraging people not to shy from difference but to embrace diversity in the interests of peace.

He did with the sort of rain-soaked good humour which defines the north, evident in the work of Hume’s schoolmate Seamus Heaney. Writing for The Irish News, William Graham recalled how Hume would approach a group of journalists outside the EU Parliament and ask “well, do you want it?” and when they inquired as to what, he would reply “the single transferable speech.”

Much like his spiritual forebear Daniel O’Connell, he held a global view, and his gaze was naturally broader than Ireland’s borders. He was a familiar figure in the corridors of power from Washington DC, as well as in Brussels as an MEP. He was instrumental in putting Irish issues on the agenda at the rather Anglophilic US Department of State.

He appealed to personal histories of leading Irish-Americans, such as former Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill and Senator Ted Kennedy, solidifying Ireland in their political imaginations in a more tangible sense than the distant, trans-Atlantic stories they had been told. Speaking on a tour bus in 2009, Hume stated how he brought O’Neill to a ruined cottage where his grandmother had been born, before emigrating to America.

However, though his interests travelled the globe, his heart would not leave home. The most touching outpourings of grief have come from Derry. It has been noted that as his dementia worsened he could still be seen walking through the town, where people would recognise him and walk alongside him to make sure he was alright.

Politics begins at home, and before all else, Hume established his commitment to the town he loved so well, and as profound as was the effect of his legacy nationally and internationally, it was just as tangible in Derry.

His introduction to politics was when banks did not lend money to the people in the city living in poverty, and so he went door-to-door to encourage people to start a savings account in the credit union he had established with his own money.

At 27, he became the youngest ever President of the Irish League of Credit Unions. He was a lifelong member, with his membership number being ‘2,’ and listed it as his proudest achievement as, in his view, no other movement had done more good for the people of Ireland.

Everything which I have described could be put down in a comprehensive How-To Guide of a great leader. All conscientious few with aspirations in politics would do well to study Hume’s life.

A profound intellect, with a rigid moral core. A global outlook, but with your feet firmly grounded and with a sense of and devotion to home. Most importantly the bravery and resolve to speak harsh truths: whether in the face of an armed British soldier, of which there are many black and white photos, or whether back to his people.

One amusing story I was told, dating from the civil rights era, concerned a march in Newry which, as could happen, led to a stand-off with the police. Hume put his head about the crowd and cried “We need order!”

At which point fellow Derryman, who also went to the same school, Eamonn McCann jumped up a few yards away and shouted, “NO! What we need is DISorder!” Maybe they both had a point. I’m minded of the words of their fellow civil rights advocate, the late John Lewis, concerning the making of ‘good trouble.’ 

It’s fitting that social media is being flooded with photos of candles in windows across Ireland: a physical representation of the light which Hume cast over an oftentimes bleak political outlook. There is undoubtedly a sadness in his death, which will be felt by his family in particular, as well as the people of Derry and Ireland in general; but as is usually the case with death, there is sunshine in the life departed, in the form of the legacy it has left behind.

It’s ultimately the test of the present generation of leaders whether they can pick up that legacy and march forwards, still bearing the words ‘We Shall Overcome.’

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