The significance of John Hume

One newspaper columnist described him as “without doubt the greatest Irish political leader since Charles Stewart Parnell.”

He was a “great hero and a true peace maker” according to Taoiseach Micheál Martin and a “visionary” according to Tony Blair.

His successor as leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Colum Eastwood, described him as “20th century Ireland’s most significant and consequential political figure” and the Irish President praised him for having “transformed and remodelled politics in Ireland.”

Another columnist agreed that he be compared to the Liberator – Daniel O’Connell – of whom James Connolly said, “felt himself to be much more akin to the propertied class of England than to the working class of Ireland”, castigating him for him having “stood between the people of Ireland and the people of England, and so “prevented a junction which would be formidable enough to overturn any administration that could be formed”. . .  to prevent any international action of the democracies . .”  Hume was leader of a Party that was not a party of Labour and was not committed to social democracy in any meaningful sense.

The same writer found room in the column to also compare him to Parnell and describe him as “the Irish equivalent of Martin Luther King.”  He was famously awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1998 and also named a Papal Knight of St Gregory in 2012.

Words of appreciation and celebration of his life came from all quarters, from Bill Clinton to Boris Johnson and from Unionist leaders to Sinn Fein.  How could such a person have “transformed” politics in Ireland with such commendations?

A little vignette from his award of the Nobel peace prize provides a clue to the answer.  After the ceremony, in an Oslo hotel, he sang an Irish ballad – The Town I Loved so Well – with an official of the Ulster Unionist Party whose leader David Trimble had shared the prize.  As’ a gesture to the unionist community’ he sang The Sash, a sectarian Orange song.  Apparently an Irish ballad of no political consequence needed to be balanced by a sectarian hymn.

That night Norwegian children marched into the square in Oslo with lanterns lit singing the civil rights song – ‘We Shall Overcome’.  Hume couldn’t sing that, not just because his Unionist partners would not have accepted it, but because he hadn’t.  Partnership with sectarianism is not its overcoming.

But then Hume didn’t set out to transform Irish politics but to preserve it in aspic, to freeze without motion the division that existed.

His (‘single transferable’) speeches were often trite and platitudinous: “all conflict is about difference; whether the difference is race, religion, or nationality”.  “Difference is an accident of birth . . . The answer to difference is to respect it.”

He has been praised for bringing peace and for the Good Friday Agreement by his being central to the process.  He could speak both to the Provisionals and to the other parties – the British, Unionists and the Southern Government.  He also played a major role in involving Washington and Brussels, through the traditional Irish politician’s activity of lobbying and seeking favours.

So he was certainly at the centre of affairs, but being at the centre should not be confused with being the central player or being the central force in determining the outcome.  The eye of a hurricane is not where it matters.  It might for example be asked how his ‘single transferable speech’, repeated so often this rather vain man was even aware of its tedium, could suddenly appear to point to the solution when it had gotten nowhere for so long.

What brought the IRA to the table, what brought the British to the table and also the unionists was not the cogency of Hume’s pious calls for peace but the fact that the British state employed greater power and violence to defeat the republicans.  Hume, Southern politicians and US politicians all gave them the cover for their surrender.

The most reactionary commentators were angry that the Provos claimed some sort of victory but this didn’t bother the main players and certainly didn’t bother Hume. So great was Hume’s feat that he managed not only to cover for the republican’s defeat but turned them into a more powerful version of his own party, which didn’t seem to unduly upset him either.

There was no doubt some political skill involved in all of this, but given that everyone that signed up to the Good Friday Agreement wanted the defeat of the republican project, it is ridiculous to claim that he transformed Irish politics.  His political philosophy couldn’t possibly do anything like this.

The answer to difference when faced with sectarianism is not to respect it or to sing its songs.  The answer to violence is not to accept the policy of the most powerful, those able to inflict the greatest violence.  The answer to division is not reconciliation to division but to seek a unity that dissolves it.  Now that would be transformational; but that was never part of Hume’s project.  Even in the civil rights movement his objective was accommodation with the Unionist regime.

In this he failed, but if all political careers are said to end in failure then perhaps Hume can claim some success.  The Good Friday Agreement limps on, mired in corruption, incompetence and bullshit.  Sectarianism hasn’t been eradicated, simply given an institutional framework that it is hoped will keep it frozen.  This indeed is John Hume’s legacy. But better not to talk about it.

In Ireland, libel laws prevent journalists and others speaking ill of the living and it is an old Irish custom not to speak ill of the dead.  But your deeds outlive you and by these deeds and their legacy shall you be judged.