John Hume was one of the most successful politicians in the post-war history of Europe. His moral leadership as an opponent of violence has rightly been praised since his death last week, but the scale of his political achievement is hard to overstate.
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the keystone of Northern Ireland’s peace settlement, was the product of hard work and courage from many leaders – not least David Trimble, who led unionism to a historic compromise. But above all, the vision that became Good Friday was forged in Hume’s mind and driven by Hume’s leadership.
Though he was elected to serve in London, Brussels and four different versions of devolved legislative body for Northern Ireland, he only held executive office once, for a little over four months in 1974, when he served as commerce minister in the first, failed attempt at power-sharing. And yet his legacy is everywhere.
How many can claim to have articulated an entirely altered settlement for a conflicted region and seen it delivered? How many can claim to have forced the alteration of the constitutions of not one but two separate states – and from a position of marginal power in both?
How many others can claim to have nudged the United States – at the peak of the Cold War – into altering its foreign policy and intervening directly in the internal affairs of its closest ally in Nato? We think nothing, now, of US presidents involving themselves in Northern Ireland. That was his doing.
For decades, British prime ministers talked of having unique influence in both Washington and Brussels. John Hume, a representative from Derry, for so long one of Europe’s most marginalised cities, actually had it. For decades.
But if there was a clear moral simplicity in Hume’s rejection of violence, his prescription for Northern Ireland was anything but straightforward. It only seems so in retrospect because of his success in inculcating his principles among policymakers in London, Dublin and Washington. In fact, his remedy for Northern Ireland involved a novel, multilateral, mutually reinforcing set of guarantees – a complex solution for a place that is fundamentally complex.
He did not believe, as Irish republicans used to argue, that we should end partition in Ireland by any means necessary. Nor did he think that anything like what had gone before in Northern Ireland – which is to say, unionist majority rule without any mechanism for all-Ireland cooperation – could be viable. These positions seem absurd now, but they were guiding principles, respectively, for republicanism and most of unionism through the period of the Troubles. If they are marginal now, it is in part because of Hume’s stubborn insistence on a different approach.
Republicans still dislike the continued partition of Ireland – as does Hume’s SDLP, for which I am now a representative – but Sinn Féin has accepted that it will only be ended by persuading the majority in Northern Ireland to vote for it. Unionists, too, have accepted large swathes of the Hume vision. Despite repeatedly forcing political crises at even the faintest formal consultative role for Dublin, they now accept that the Irish Government will have a permanent say in the governance of the North, whatever the constitutional future.
Hume is referred to as a statesman, but the word is somewhat misleading. Not only did he not lead a state, but one of his core achievements was to soften claims of absolute statehood in Northern Ireland in favour of something more expansive.
None of this was simple. Hume designed, then promulgated, a three-stranded architecture that encompassed not just Northern Ireland, but both islands. The first strand addressing relations inside Northern Ireland; the second between the north and south of Ireland; and the third between Britain and Ireland.
As a representative of the movement and party he shaped, I am, of course, biased. The political system in which I work is in large part his creation. I participated in a guard of honour at his scaled-down, socially distant funeral in Derry last week, and was immensely proud to do so. But not one of the major parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly, nor any in Dublin or London, seriously dissents from the three-stranded approach which he first coined and then drilled into the lexicon of everyone else.
In some ways, his former careers stood him in extraordinarily good stead for what he would end up doing: a former trainee priest, he seemed to have a natural capacity for deep, abstract thinking about concepts as frustrating as contested nationhood in the north of Ireland.
A former teacher, he had a knack for didactic explication so that even the most distracted pupil got the message: thus was borne the famous Hume “single transferable speech”. Even the briefest local media appearance was an opportunity to hammer home the same moral and intellectual themes. What is unique is that, in addition to these qualities, he was possessed of a remarkable ability to connect with ordinary working people.
What now for the architecture Hume bequeathed? It remains essential, but self-evidently needs repairs. The superstructure that enabled it is weakened. The relationship between the two states on the island of Ireland was supported by the UK and Ireland’s joint membership of the EU, which allowed physical borders to disappear.
Derry, which so benefited from EU funding, is no longer in the EU. The city’s west bank, which shaped Hume’s life and much else in Irish history, is acutely vulnerable again – separated as always from the rest of Northern Ireland by the wide river Foyle. But the county of Donegal, its natural and historic hinterland, is now on the other side of the EU border which now virtually surrounds the bulk of the city. Any chink in the protections of the Ireland protocol agreed between the UK and EU will deeply expose his beloved city to the disruptive force of Brexit.
This is a particular tragedy: Hume was inspired by what he saw as the European project’s capacity to overcome borders between people by making sovereign borders less intrusive. One of his most repeated stories – from an admittedly crowded field – was of standing on the Pont de l’Europe between Strasbourg and Kehl, France and Germany, and considering the symbolism. But the post-Brexit challenges go beyond symbolism.
British and Irish ministers are no longer meeting in European Councils, making the process of engagement between the two jurisdictions on the island less routine and more clunky. Vast areas of north-south cooperation – the most under-utilised strand of the Good Friday infrastructure – will inevitably be made more difficult as the UK diverges from EU rules, even as Northern Ireland remains in the single market for goods.
On the other side of the world, there have been glimpses of Hume’s old spadework lately. Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the House majority, has been consistent that a UK-US trade deal must not hurt the Good Friday Agreement infrastructure. But it would be naive to believe the Irish-American caucus in Congress, or indeed interest in the White House, is in 2020 what it was in the 1980s or 90s, in the era of Tip O’Neill and Ted Kennedy.
Inside Northern Ireland, the immediate relief of the post-conflict era is gone. We aren’t simply grateful not to have violence any longer – though we should never take this for granted – but our politics hasn’t yet moved far enough along. We needle one another about the past; there is little consensus on how to even speak about what happened, let alone understand it.
Decisions on social and economic direction are largely made by tribal carve-out between the two big parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, or improvised in the absence of an agreed Programme for Government. This is far, far superior to what went before, but as with Hume’s generation in the 1960s, young people long for a genuinely transformed society. Some of us think this can best happen in the context of further constitutional change, a “new Ireland” made more imperative by the decisions of successive UK governments to veer into ever more extreme Brexit fantasia, all while ignoring the safe words being screamed by non-English regions.
In truth, very few of us know exactly where the next few years will take us, not just in Northern Ireland but everywhere in these islands. The assumptions on which these islands rested – EU membership, a viable UK state – have either disappeared or are in question. What we do know is that this place is immensely better than it was as a result of Hume’s work, and wherever we go next, it will be with the map and moral compass he provided.
Illustrations by Tim Vyner