John Hume deserves his place in history as a man of peace. But the sentimentalised view of him presented in most of the media in the days since his death is far from the full truth.
I knew John for decades. We disagreed about politics, frequently in angry tones. But I never heard him advocate violence or say anything suggesting a sneaking regard for those involved in what it pleases Republicans to call “armed struggle.” This is a rarer thing than has been generally been acknowledged.
The past in Ireland, including the very recent past, teems with respectable Nationalist politicians who clambered their way to the top with the help of a wink and a nod towards “the men of violence,” endlessly proclaiming their own moral superiority in pursuing peace while letting local paramilitaries understand that deep down, underneath, they were onside for the war. Thus, they’d simultaneously keep a line open to the armed strugglers while hugging media commentators close.
“Constructive ambiguity,” it used to be called.
It can be said of Hume that while he could be a dab hand at the subtlety when it suited him, he was, in comparison with the vast majority of those around him, a straight talker.
John was a constitutional nationalist. That is, he believed that Irish unity was eminently desirable and could best be achieved through involvement in conventional parliamentary action and on this basis winning the support of powerful elements in Britain, the US and around the world.
The suggestion that he persuaded Gerry Adams and other IRA leaders by sheer force of moral argument to leave the road of armed struggle and shift across to the path of peace is fanciful. What he did was coax the Provos into acceptance that armed-struggle Republicanism had run out of road and that the way forward was to embrace a strategy – his – which they had scorned and derided since their emergence at the beginning of the 1970s.
Not only had they jeered at Hume’s strategy, dubbing his party the “Stoop Down Low Party,” on occasion they expressed their hostility by attacking him and his family. Writing this week in the US newspaper, the Irish Echo, Jack Holland recalls speaking with John’s wife, Pat, about the regular attacks on their home in Derry. They would frequently come home to find the front of their house in West End Park daubed with paint – “Traitor,” “Tout”, “Get out of Derry.” etc.
Nobody in the area doubted that this was the work of Republicans – specifically, as it turned out, of the junior wing of the IRA, the Fianna. The Fianna wouldn’t have dared to do this without a go-ahead from their superiors within the movement, some of whom are now swaggering their supposed long-time close association with Hume and his political approach.
“Hooded men shot at our windows,” Pat Hume recounted. “They tried to smash the glass so they could lob petrol bombs into the house. But the glass, fortunately, did not break.
“Then they threw petrol bombs at each of the three stories. The petrol stuck to the reinforced glass as the house went up in flames.
“We couldn’t get out the front door – it was in flames – so we fled out the back.”
The intention was to burn the Hume family out. None of the Sinn Fein leaders who have gushed praise for John in the last few days has acknowledged any of this or ventured anything resembling an apology – “We are all peace processors now.”
Sinn Fein members, too, it should be said, suffered murderous attacks. More than a dozen were killed by loyalist paramilitaries, in some instances with the involvement, if not at the instigation, of agents of the British State.
The point about Hume and the SDLP is that they and their families were under attack by “both sides” precisely because they condemned both sides’ violence.
The sharpest difference between John and the likes of People Before Profit was evident in relation to America. In the early 1970s, John was already embarked on the lobbying operation which was to bring the “Irish Question”- more accurately by that stage, the Northern Ireland question – back into mainstream US politics. Beginning with Jimmy Carter, he persuaded a succession of presidents to include the North on their agenda. This came at a price.
You couldn’t get top US politicians on-side for your cause if you insisted on banging on about the Vietnam War or police brutality against African Americans.
An alternative strategy was to seek common cause with the victims of the US state. Bernadette Devlin, as she then was, denounced Mayor Richard Daly of Chicago for sending his cops out to tear-gas and batter anti-racist and anti-war protesters. This, naturally, lost her the backing of leading Irish-American politicians.
But it won her the support of black radicals, including the Black Panthers, of anti-war militants and of Left-wing Americans generally.
Choices have to be made. Bernadette and John chose differently on account of their different politics.
These questions haven’t been resolved. When Black Lives Matter was shouldered off the street in Derry last month, SDLP councillors refused to support motions of solidarity. So, as it happens, did Sinn Fein. Only People Before Profit and a number of Independent councillors stepped up to the mark.
This time, it was the local business community neither Nationalist party wanted to alienate. The principle is the same – ditching anti-establishment politics to preserve alliance with pro-establishment politicians.
It can be said for John that there was nothing sleekit about the way he went about this. He didn’t take one road while swearing blind that he was actually, if you looked at it from a different angle, on another road entirely. Even if you didn’t approve of the positions he occupied, you knew where you stood with John. That can’t be said for all those who clustered around him when they reckoned there was advantage in it for themselves.
I knew him first as a neighbour, latterly as a friend. This no doubt colours our perceptions, but doesn’t obscure the fact that in the end he was a man of honour.
No small thing in politics.