Friday, September 18, 2020


“He focused on unity and peace and giving that dignity to every person. We should never underestimate how difficult it was for John to cross the road and do what was intensely unpopular for the greater good.”
  —Father Paul Farren, in his homily at the funeral of John Hume, August 5
One major impact the pandemic has had on Irish society is the curtailment of large, public funerals. Along with weddings, christenings and First Holy Communions, the funeral is one of those rituals the define the Irish character and survives even in a time when regular Mass-going has dropped precipitously.

It is a sad irony that, among the many funerals held during this strangely becalmed period, was that of John Hume in early August. If his send-off in his native Derry had been commensurate with his contribution to life on this island, it would have been a massive affair. Instead, like the man himself it was restrained and dignified and somewhat overshadowed by large events. As it was, though, in the spite of the restrictions the attendance was impressive. Mourners included Northern Ireland’s deputy and first ministers, Ireland’s president, Taoiseach and foreign minister, and the UK’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland. Tributes were read out, including those from the Pope, the Dalai Lama, Bill Clinton, Boris Johnson and, inevitably, U2’s Bono.

Appropriately, in the evening on the day of his death, the Irish state broadcaster aired Maurice Fitzpatrick’s excellent documentary In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America. It was a fitting homage to the man, and I would heartily recommend anyone with an interest in Ireland’s history or current affairs to take any opportunity to see it. I was fortunate enough to attend the film’s world premiere at the 2017 Galway Film Fleadh and also attend a panel discussion including the filmmaker and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who was in office when the Good Friday peace agreement was signed.

Since Hume’s passing, I have done much pondering of what an extraordinary man he was and why we see so few like him in public life. I suppose there are moments when the times require a particular kind of person and they somehow find him or her. When things are going well, such people are ignored in favor of the ambitious and opportunistic.

You could say that Hume was just smarter than other politicians. His strategy led to a peace agreement for Northern Ireland because he saw that there was more chance of success if he got the United States’ leadership on board. Moreover, unlike many politicians, he recognized that there needed to be recognition of legitimate concerns of both sides in the dispute and that an agreement had to benefit both sides. You hear precious little talk like that these days among politicians in Belfast, Dublin, London or Washington.

All that, however, still isn’t the most extraordinary thing about Hume’s achievement. He undertook a course for finding peace in his country, knowing full well that it could doom his own political party and his own career. That is exactly what happened, but he did it anyway because he had his eye on the greater good. Once the peace was secured, unionists and nationalists—whether out of fear or out of a need for retrenchment—abandoned the dominant moderate parties (the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party) that had negotiated the peace and switched their votes to more extreme parties (the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin). Those two parties have governed Northern Ireland in partnership ever since, while the UUP and SDLP have become shadows of the former selves. The peace process also took a personal toll on Hume, as his health went into decline.

Does the rise of the DUP and Sinn Féin mean the peace accord wasn’t worth it? Hardly. There was not only a persistent drop in the province’s political violence, but we were treated to the spectacle an unexpectedly cordial friendship between bitter old enemies Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness. They became so comfortable with each other that wags dubbed them the “Chuckle Brothers.”

Things have been by no means smooth in Northern Ireland, and things look to get dicey with Brexit looming, but only very sick minds regret the end of the Troubles. That would not have been possible without John Hume and his willingness to put peace and cooperation above his own personal interests. It will not be lost on cynics, however, that the careers which flourished as a result of Hume’s efforts were those of Paisley, who had stirred the fires of sectarianism, and Adams, who had reportedly been an active participant in the violence of the Troubles.

When looking at my own country these days and the increasingly bitter estrangement between those on different political sides, I wonder if there is an American John Hume out there somewhere who would sacrifice his or her political career to bring the two sides together. Sometimes people surprise you, but right now I don’t see anybody on the political scene who isn’t in it for themselves or their own side.

Will things have to get even worse before the times finally produce someone of John Hume’s caliber?