John Hume (1937–2020)

A historic leader of moderate nationalism, John Hume is widely eulogized for helping end the war in Northern Ireland. But praise for his rejection of violence shouldn't be combined with amnesia about the deep injustices that fueled the conflict in the Six Counties.

John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), 1985. (Pacemaker)

In War and an Irish Town, his account of the early years of the Troubles, Eamonn McCann recalls a front-page headline from the Derry Journal in the summer of 1972: “HUME CALLS FOR RESTRAINT.” According to McCann, one local militant greeted John Hume’s exhortation with a sigh: “Now there’s a turn-up for the books.”

For admirers and detractors alike, Hume epitomized caution, restraint and moderation, throughout a conflict shaped by more assertive and unyielding political actors. Lord Cameron’s report on the disturbances of 1968–69 singled out Hume as the Platonic ideal of a moderate reformer, some time before the Irish Republican Army (IRA) became the symbol of revolutionary intransigence. Thirty years later, Hume would receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in bringing about the Good Friday Agreement.

Throughout those decades, Hume assumed an international profile many prime ministers would have envied — despite being a regional politician from the UK’s smallest part. He did so without holding any executive office, apart from a few months in the 1970s, or even playing the role of kingmaker at Westminster, as Northern Irish politicians have sometimes been known to do. He was an influential figure in Brussels and had the ear of US congressmen like Ted Kennedy and Tip O’Neill. When Bill Clinton decided to invest some political capital in the Northern Irish peace process, he relied upon Hume as a guide to the local market.

Choice or Fate?

Sam McBride of the Newsletter summed up a popular view of Hume in the wake of his death: “He will live in history as a powerful contrast to those such as Martin McGuinness who turned to violence. Hume’s achievements showed that was a choice, not an inevitability.”

Hume and McGuinness certainly make for a neat contrast: two nationalists from Derry, both of whom lived through the turmoil of the late 1960s yet went on to follow radically different paths, one as a mainstream politician, the other as an IRA commander. But the divergence between them was far more than a question of individual choice.

Born in 1937, Hume was thirteen years older than McGuinness, and already a grown man with developed political convictions when the Troubles began. Republican paramilitary activism was almost exclusively a pursuit of the young: McGuinness was the dominant figure in the Derry IRA by the age of twenty-one, and he was by no means the youngest of his comrades.

He had been through the formative experience of scrappy confrontations with the British Army by the time he decided to join the IRA. Hume could never have been one of the teenagers throwing stones on the fringe of Derry’s Bogside, even if his politics had allowed for it.

Age wasn’t the only factor separating Hume from McGuinness. Class and education came into play as well. Hume was one of the beneficiaries of the post-war education system, which had a selective exam for secondary-school students known as the eleven-plus.

Hume was proud of his achievements, but seemed rather oblivious to the experience of those who were shunted toward a life of unskilled manual work after failing the school exams taken at age eleven: “There’s no education system in the world that’ll put brains into someone who hasn’t got them,” he told journalist Fionnuala O’Connor in the early 1990s. “Selection means that people of ability, no matter what their social level, can break through.” Martin McGuinness was one of the “people of ability” who found a different (and highly unorthodox) outlet for his talents; many never did.

Something to Lose

This was no mere biographical quirk. Hume’s political vehicle, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) formed in 1970, was dominated by the Catholic middle class. Hume himself worked as a teacher and was active in Derry’s credit-union movement before entering politics full time. His deputy leader Seamus Mallon was a school headmaster.

The SDLP was formed by a group of politicians from Westminster and the regional assembly at Stormont, who could all loosely be described as moderate nationalists. They intended to give voice to a newly confident mood in the nationalist community after the civil rights protests of the late 1960s, while guarding against anything that smacked of “extremism,” whether republican or socialist.

As its name suggested, the party initially had thoughts of positioning itself on the Left, and it joined the Socialist International. By the late 1970s, however, the “labor” element grouped around Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin had departed, leaving Hume as the SDLP’s predominant figure for the next two decades.

In cities like Derry and Belfast, most Irish Republican Army (IRA) recruits were young working-class nationalists like Martin McGuinness. They were much more likely to rub up against the British security forces in their everyday lives.

Their willingness to tear down the status quo instead of trying to reform it stemmed from the fact that they had very little to lose. When Hume’s party negotiated the Sunningdale Agreement, a short-lived power-sharing deal, in the early 1970s, IRA supporters dismissed it as an irrelevance and vowed to fight on until they had secured a united Ireland.

When Sinn Féin made its first electoral breakthrough at the start of the 1980s, there was a sharp class divide between the electorates of the two nationalist parties. David Blatherwick, a civil servant at the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) who later became the British ambassador in Dublin, captured this very well in a 1983 NIO paper.

With a UK general election due within months, Blatherwick wanted to estimate Sinn Féin’s chances of leapfrogging the SDLP. He described the outlook of the republican party’s core social constituency, the Catholic ghettoes of Derry and West Belfast:

People find it easy to believe that they would be no worse off, and maybe even better, in a united Ireland. Certainly, they can have little reason to believe that a resumption of devolved government, even on a power-sharing basis, would lead to a dramatic improvement in their standard of living. Moreover, people who have become inured to the atmosphere of violence and intimidation over the past decade or more view with comparative equanimity the prospect that getting the “Brits” out of Ireland may mean more bloodshed, especially if it might solve the problem once and for all.

Middle-class Catholics, on the other hand, had seen new prospects open up since the British government had suspended the Unionist administration at Stormont in 1972 and imposed direct rule from London.

If they had previously been a small layer of the population, geared to the needs of their own community as doctors, teachers, priests, or small business owners, they had now gained access to civil-service jobs and the legal profession. Blatherwick found middle-class Catholic attitudes to be “more complicated” than those of their working-class brethren:

Ideally they would support power-sharing, were it available, as giving them a political share in the community in which they have an economic and social stake. But they do not believe unionists will concede power-sharing, and distrust fancy arrangements for devolution which, they fear, bigoted unionists and unheeding British Governments could transform back into Stormont rule. The middle class too show signs of conversion to a belief that a united Ireland is, sooner or later, inevitable, but perhaps because of their greater stake in the community they are far more disturbed than their working-class counterparts about the implications of continued violence.

For Blatherwick, it was essential to give John Hume’s party a role in the political process: “If not, the danger is that the Catholic community will lose interest in ordinary, constitutional politics; and even that the SDLP will lose heart and disintegrate.”

Aspiring to Greater Things

That, in a nutshell, was the difference between the constituencies of the two movements. At the level of individuals, it may have been moral attitudes concerning the legitimacy of violence that determined their choices; but in the aggregate, it was social conditions that shaped their thinking about the political field.

Of course, terms like “middle-class” and “working-class” are ambiguous, contested terrain. The 1984 European election proved to be one of the decisive battles in the contest between Sinn Féin and the SDLP. As one of Northern Ireland’s three incumbent MEPs, Hume saw off Sinn Féin’s Danny Morrison by a comfortable margin after a skillful campaign.

Ed Moloney of the Irish Times noted that Hume’s key achievement had been gaining the support of “that broad mass of Catholic voters often decried by Sinn Féin as ‘middle class’ but who are in fact mostly employed, respectable, Church-going Catholics who are definitely working class but who aspire to greater things for their sons and daughters.” They saw Hume as a respectable figure, in contrast to Morrison’s image as a “Belfast street fighter.”

In the long run, Sinn Féin managed to win over this “aspirational” section of the nationalist community, but the price it had to pay was abandoning its traditional maximalist approach to Irish unity in favor of SDLP-style gradualism. Once it did so, there was never much doubt that Sinn Féin would supplant its traditional rival, as its leaders could draw upon a highly motivated activist cadre that the SDLP never possessed.

If Hume found it amusing that Sinn Féin ended up stealing his political wardrobe, he was too dignified to say so; it was his deputy Seamus Mallon who bitingly compared the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 to the abortive peace deal of the 1970s, dubbing it “Sunningdale for slow learners.”

Many people will find Hume to be a more attractive figure than Martin McGuinness. He didn’t plant any bombs or arrange for bombs to be planted. On a personal level, he was as honest, principled, and self-sacrificing as you could reasonably expect a politician to be, and clearly put himself through considerable strain during the peace process of the 1990s.

Although Hume’s favorite saying about nationalism of any variety, “you can’t eat a flag,” may have lost some of its bite through repetition, it’s still a useful maxim — especially since his optimistic vision of a “post-nationalist” Europe, where national borders and state sovereignty had ceased to matter very much, now seems far more elusive than it did in 1998.

But a careful study of the social and political conditions that produced men like McGuinness will shed more light on what happened during the Troubles than any amount of moral exhortations or homilies about the “men of violence.” It will also do more to help prevent a repetition, whether in Ireland or elsewhere.