JOHN HUME was a giant figure in 20th-century history. He is the only person to have been awarded the Gandhi Peace Prize and the Martin Luther King Award, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize. But, one to one, the stocky, bushy-browed Irishman appeared a more prosaic figure. His manner was gentle, his language pedagogical. He ordered tea, not whiskey, when I met him for a drink.
In that, he was a man of his time and place. To an English journalist working as Belfast Correspondent for The Times in the 1980s, there was something similarly paradoxical about what the Irish referred to as the Troubles. The setting was domestic, even banal, and yet the events were sudden, violent, and bloody. Hume’s home and office had been petrol-bombed, and two of his cars blown up; the IRA had considered killing him, and the loyalist Ulster Defence Association had declared him a “legitimate target”.
Throughout all this, Hume ploughed a dogged and often lonely furrow. Into it, this visionary seeded peace by attempting to break the grim cycle of killing. The future could not be doomed merely to repeat the past, he devoutly believed. An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.
Although born into the city of Derry/Londonderry, where a Protestant minority openly discriminated against a Catholic majority — in jobs, housing, and control of local government — he never succumbed to the logic of violence. A schoolteacher who had once trained to be a priest, he was not just a local leader in the civil-rights movement: he also set up Ireland’s first credit union there, in the Bogside, in 1960. This two-handed approach, of protesting against the negative and building the positive, led him to confront the commanders of British soldiers on the streets of his city, but also to shape a prophetic alternative that eventually brought the gunmen to the negotiating table.
Taking a huge risk for peace, he entered into talks with the IRA’s political wing — a move that earned him savage criticism from both sides, but paved the way for the decommissioning of the guns. He laid the foundations for the Good Friday Agreement, to usher in an imperfect but very real peace.
Undergirding it all was an unswerving commitment to dialogue — and a conviction that the pooling of ideas would bring a way forward. In Ireland, it was not territory that needed to be united, but the hearts, minds, and dreams of its peoples.
The people for whom he cared over six long decades, in the end, looked after him. When dementia set in, he would go for long walks along the River Foyle, and, as the condition progressed, people would walk with him to make sure that he was all right, and even walk him home.
Over tea that day, I asked him why, over the years, he had repeatedly offered us journalists a more optimistic analysis of the situation in Ireland than events warranted. He replied: “Always tell people that what you want to happen already is happening. Then you can be sure it will happen.” In the end, that optimism became integral to the agendas of all the parties to the peace process. Perhaps it wasn’t optimism. It was hope.