Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
On 3 August 2020, the UK lost one of its most instrumental statesmen. John Hume, the celebrated leader of the SDLP, is someone that I deeply admire. I had the pleasure of being taught the caldron that is Northern Irish history in the final year of my degree. Hume, the enigmatic and often divisive politician from the battle-torn Bogside, Derry/Londonderry (A.K.A. ‘slash city’), stood out in my reading as an architect in the region’s “alternative to war”.
To his critics, the former Foyle MP was an IRA sympathiser tucked up in bed with Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams. But to devotees – like myself – Hume was a diplomatic risktaker, paving the way for the Downing Street Declaration and later the Good Friday Agreement – the landmark power-sharing treaty that sought to reach a consensus among nationalists and unionists to, among other things, decommission paramilitary groups. A climate of peace was cemented, and Hume’s efforts were rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize of 1998, alongside the UUP’s David Trimble.
Towards the end of his life, Hume’s health began to deteriorate. Suffering from dementia, his family described him in his later stages as bemused and unsure of the impact that he had in public life. But those that have the fainted interest in current affairs will never forget Hume’s input. Although he was a republican, figures from across the spectrum – even Prime Minister Boris Johnson – paid tribute to Hume because of a collective understanding; that societal change is progressed not violently but through democratic means.
Hume’s reputation remains intact, but uncertainty persists for how long. Developments in fractious Belfast continue to question the effectiveness of devolution, among these: continued party infighting – over issues like Irish integration – leading to ‘solo policy runs’ and gridlock; community polarisation and, distressingly, a lack of leadership both presently and in bringing justice to those who suffered during the Troubles.
Then there is Brexit. In a previous column I wrote for a separate publication, I wrote how Northern Ireland could be able to manage the scenario of a no deal with the elimination of tariffs and a collaborative relationship between the UK and the Republic utilising the British-Irish Council. Upon reflection, given our January exit and a recently reconvened Stormont, a trade deal with Brussels by December will be vital for economic stability. Even current and ex-members of Johnson’s cabinet recognise the apparatuses Hume helped to put in place to prevent a problematic EU departure.
Whatever the fate of Northern Ireland, we cannot forget the values that Hume espoused which proved so triumphantly. Specifically, the need to engage on issues collectively rather than focusing on partisan ideals. As of present, the system appears weak and is suffering a democratic deficit. Problematically, the weakness of power-sharing may escalate sectarian tensions and, in the process, undermine Hume’s contribution.
At a time when the political system is widely considered to be a failure (not helped by Covid-19 and the uncertainty surrounding a hard border), there are great lessons to be gleaned from Hume’s life, when addressing the current issues facing Northern Ireland. In a dedicated spirit, Hume’s legacy of inclusivity and persistence must be conserved. None put this ideal more succinctly and poignantly than the former US President Bill Clinton: “I implore you, for the sake of the young people and all of those who did so much for so long, like John Hume – finish the job.”