Two weeks ago, one-half of the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Northern Irish politician John Hume. The Nobel committee stated that for the past 30 years, Hume had been the “clearest and most consistent” advocate of peace in Northern Ireland. More than 3,200 people have lost their lives in Northern Ireland since the modern “troubles” began in the late 1960s. While the outside world has seen graphic images of the violence that has convulsed Northern Ireland as recently as August, when a bomb killed 28, the diligent work of the peacemakers was often overlooked. Hume is one of the most diligent.
Thirty years ago, Hume, now leader of the largest nominally Catholic political party in Northern Ireland, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, threw himself into the struggle for Catholic civil rights. While the Irish Republican Army and leaders of Sinn Fein, its political wing, insisted the Protestant-dominated government of Northern Ireland could not be peacefully reformed, Hume steadfastly pressed a nonviolent approach to political change. Hume understood there would be no military victory for either the IRA or the British army.
In the mid-1970s, Hume began outlining a political scenario for peace. He suggested a power-sharing Northern Irish assembly; simultaneous democratic referendums on the peace deal in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic; and cross-border political structures linking north and south. All these proposals are now elements of the Good Friday Agreement, negotiated by former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell and signed by most of Northern Ireland’s major political parties in April. While continuing to assert that Ireland should ultimately be reunited, Hume has maintained that the ultimate political status of Northern Ireland should be changed only with the consent of the majority of its citizens.
Hume took a great risk in 1993, when he approached Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein. After their secret talks were revealed, Hume was vilified by most of the Protestant Unionist community and in the press. Major figures in his own party turned against him. His life was threatened. But his persistence paid off as Sinn Fein joined the talks on new political arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Hume, 61, is a tenacious political campaigner. Often disheveled and rumpled, his appearance belies a highly organized intellect. While he did not take a position in the new Northern Irish government, Hume continues to serve in both the British and European Parliaments. Patricia, his wife of 38 years, runs the Social Democrats’ constituency office in Londonderry, or Derry, as many there still call it. They have five children.
Hume shares this year’s award with John Trimble, first minister of the Northern Irish Assembly and leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. From his European Parliament office in Strasbourg, France, Hume spoke about the changing nature of the nation-state, his relationship with Adams and his optimism about long-term peace in Northern Ireland.
Question: Many people now look to Northern Ireland as an example of how seemingly intractable conflicts can be reconciled. What can people in other areas of conflict learn from Ireland?
Answer: All conflict, when you study it, is about difference--whether it’s your race, your religion or your nationality. And the answer to difference is not to fight about it but to respect it, because difference is an accident of birth. In respecting difference, the best way to do it in areas of conflict is to set up democratic institutions which respect our differences but allow us to work together with one another in our common interests. Those common interests are largely social and economic. We have to spill our sweat and not our blood. This way you build the trust and break down the barriers of centuries which allows a new society to evolve based upon agreement and respect for difference. That’s what we are now doing in Northern Ireland.
Q: How did you first get involved in politics in Northern Ireland?
A: I didn’t intend to get involved in politics. I was one of the first generation from my community to get free, full-time education. My parents could not afford to pay, as my father was unemployed. Up until 1947, you couldn’t go to high school or the university here without having to pay for it; 1947 was the first year of scholarships, and I got one. When I came back to Derry, I thought I had a duty to those not as fortunate as myself. I got involved in community development through the credit-union movement. We started the first credit union in Derry in 1960, and it’s now one of the biggest in the whole of Europe.
Q: A number of commentators have pointed out that Martin Luther King Jr. was a great influence on you.
A: In the 1960s, most young people in Europe were influenced by the civil-rights movement in America and by President John F. Kennedy. I often quote King in my speeches, given that we are a divided people. The quote I use most often is one he took from Mahatma Gandhi: “The old doctrine of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.” When you use violence in a divided society, the other side retaliates and you’re into the doctrine of an eye for an eye.
Q: Are you a philosophical pacifist or a pragmatic one in the context of Northern Ireland?
A: I believe absolutely in it. It’s from my experience in life and from the education I received.
Q: Violence can be very seductive. How do you psychologically overcome that desire for revenge?
A: Because the most fundamental right is the right to life. Therefore you cannot argue that you are working for the rights of other people and other human beings if your methods undermine the most fundamental right of all--the right to life.
Q: You’ve focused on concrete issues in Northern Ireland like the right to jobs, fair housing and economic development, rather than the issue of a united Ireland, which has animated Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army. Why?
A: My father once told me you can’t eat a flag. If you cannot earn a living in the land of your birth, and you have to go elsewhere to do so, then the land of your birth is not worth much to you. So the most important thing for people is that they have a decent standard of living, and therefore it’s our duty to do everything we can to assure they’ve got it. And, of course, when they have that, it’s a lot easier to deal with other problems. We are about to do that now in Northern Ireland.
Q: You had secret talks with Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, in 1993 about ending violence. What was it that gave you the sense that the IRA and Sinn Fein might be interested in an alternative political solution?
A: I knew that Sinn Fein and the IRA believed in what they were doing and were a product of Irish history. I felt that the reasons they were giving for their actions were out of date. So I asked them to state the reasons for their strategy. They said that the British were in Ireland defending their interests by force, and therefore the Irish had the right to use force to put them out. My reply was that, yes, in the past, Britain came into Ireland originally because of Ireland’s links to European countries, but that was no longer true in today’s Europe. Today’s problem of a divided people was a legacy of that past, but that couldn’t be solved by guns or bombs; it could only be made worse by deepening the division. That was the fundamental basis of the debate.
Q: You were vilified in the Irish press and even criticized by members of your own party for meeting with Adams. Was that the most difficult time in your political career?
A: It was a very difficult time because I did get a lot of abuse and a lot of criticism. While I’m a public representative, I’m also a human being. But I knew what I was doing and I knew why I was doing it, so I had no apologies to make to anyone. I knew from the beginning that Gerry Adams was engaged in totally genuine dialogue with me. If 20,000 British soldiers couldn’t stop the killing on my streets, I thought if I could stop it, or save a single human life by direct dialogue, it was my duty to do so. I privately felt there was a real chance of succeeding, so I kept at it.
Q: What major changes in the status of Catholics have taken place in Northern Ireland in the past 30 years?
A: When we started in the civil-rights movement there were three basic reforms we wanted. We wanted one-person-one-vote, and we’ve got that. We wanted fair allocation of houses in the public-housing arena. Now, we have one of the best public-housing systems in Europe. The third was fair employment. Unfortunately, we have not been able to make the same progress on that front. The reason we haven’t is because of the violence of the last 30 years that has prevented us getting the inward investment that we needed.
We are now going to work on that together, particularly with our friends in America. American companies who invest in Northern Ireland will also be investing in the biggest single market in the world, the European market. That will be valuable for the healing process in our community. One of my dreams is to make the Foyle Valley in Derry, my city, the Silicon valley of Europe.
Q: You have won this prize, but there is not a permanent peace in Northern Ireland. There are still many critical issues, including arms decommissioning, that could derail the process. How do you make this peace stick?
A: I think we have got the foundations for lasting peace. I don’t like the comments of those who say we don’t. Those comments ignore the fundamental and historic things that have happened in Ireland. For the first time in our history, the people of Ireland as a whole have voted together with an overwhelming majority for this agreement as the basis for lasting peace. So, anybody who seeks to overthrow that agreement seeks to overthrow democracy. The will of the people is strengthened by the Nobel award given to myself and John Trimble. I see the award not as an award to myself but to the people of Ireland.
Q: You don’t agree with Trimble that arms decommissioning should begin before Adams and other Sinn Fein representatives are admitted to the Executive Committee of the new government.
A: I think it should be done parallel to the implementation of the rest of the agreement, as the agreement itself declares. This should be done to the satisfaction of all sections of the people, which includes people Mr. Trimble represents. One of the aspects of the Good Friday Agreement is total disarmament. All parties have to do everything in their power to bring about total disarmament.
Q: How important were Americans and President Clinton in pushing the peace process forward?
A: The role of President Clinton and the Americans was a central one in this approach. President Clinton put peace in Ireland right at the top of his agenda, and his support was central to getting peace on our streets and reaching an agreement. Not only am I deeply grateful to him, but the people of Ireland [are], as well.
Q: As a trained historian, what do you see as the historical flow of social and economic change that has created the context for the peace agreement?
A: We are living in a postnationalist world today. We have moved beyond the nation-state in Europe. That has changed the nature of our problem. The Irish problem of 1998 is not the Irish problem of 1920, because, in 1920, Britain had a definite interest in being in Ireland and staying in Ireland. That is not so today. Today’s problem is a legacy of that past.
Q: You didn’t take a leadership position in the new Northern Irish Assembly. Why?
A: I’m a human being and there’s a limited amount of work I can do. I’m a member of the European Parliament, and it’s important that we play a steady role there. I’m also a member of the British Parliament, so I couldn’t take on any more work.
Q: You’ve suffered from exhaustion and periodic depression. What personal sacrifices have you made from all of this?
A: I don’t think in those terms. I do my job.