John Hume, who has died aged 83, was the politician widely credited with crafting the Irish peace process. Although he never held high political office in Britain or Ireland, over almost 30 turbulent years he decisively influenced the way that successive British and Irish administrations handled their common Northern Ireland problem and monitored their efforts to quell the civil disorder and political deadlock.
Driven by an acute understanding of history and a belief in “an agreed Ireland”, Hume envisaged an idyllic state in which everyone, both northerners and southerners, “reached an accommodation as to how we share this piece of earth”.
The leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP), he was jointly awarded the Nobel peace prize with the unionist leader David Trimble in 1998 and went on to receive many other honours from universities and institutions around the world in his own right. As a committed nationalist, he relentlessly pursued a long-term strategy: internal reform in Northern Ireland was not enough, and a lasting settlement could endure only within an agreed all-Ireland context.
In an unlikely precursor to this political career, one of Hume’s earliest projects, in the 1960s, was to set up a smoked salmon business in his native Derry. At that time, Derry was plagued by poverty, whatever yardstick was used. There were families still living in huts built to accommodate US troops during the second world war. Many more were registered on a waiting list that was hopelessly long. While there was a thriving shirt industry, few men were employed. The local council openly discriminated against Catholics and carved up the city boundaries to maintain electoral power.
Like many of his contemporaries, angered by what he saw on his doorstep, Hume had increasingly become active in local working-class politics. As a member of the new Catholic educated class, he set up the first credit union in Ireland in the Bogside area of Derry in 1960 and five years later established a housing association. It was promptly locked in confrontation with the council because its ambitious building plans threatened to upset the carefully engineered unionist power base.
Inspired by the civil rights campaigns elsewhere in 1968, Hume was at the head of many Derry marches. They erupted in violence that October, after Stormont banned a gathering in the city and ordered the RUC to halt it, violently if necessary. By the following summer the security situation had so deteriorated that the British government was obliged to deploy soldiers and force the unionists into overdue reforms to end discrimination against Catholics and restore peace to the streets.
Hume played a prominent role in the agitation, earning praise from the Cameron commission appointed to investigate the disturbances. Its report concluded that “Mr Hume’s influence has been insistently exercised in favour of the adoption of peaceful means of protest and he has so far resolutely opposed violence and disorder.”
After winning the Foyle seat in the Stormont general election of February 1969, he became a full-time politician. The following year, having been outmanoeuvred in attempts to found his own new purely nationalist party, he reluctantly helped form the SDLP under the leadership of Gerry Fitt, the West Belfast MP.
From the outset the coalition was a fragile one, with conflicting personalities and often contradictory political ambitions. The party withdrew from Stormont after the one-sided introduction of internment without trial in August 1971, but only with serious misgivings on the part of Fitt and others. Its departure, however, hastened the introduction of direct rule in March 1972.
Over the following months, the SDLP engaged in groundbreaking negotiations with the Northern Ireland secretary, William Whitelaw, and, in December 1973 at Sunningdale, with the Irish government’s participation, reached a comprehensive agreement. In what was undoubtedly one of the SDLP’s finest hours, they concluded a landmark power-sharing deal with unionists that gave Catholic elected representatives cabinet seats at Stormont for the first time.
Hume became minister of commerce, charged with attracting investment and jobs to an economy where longstanding disadvantage had been aggravated by the IRA’s renewed campaign of terrorism. But before he could get fully to grips with his task, loyalists protested against the plan, also agreed at Sunningdale, to establish a Council of Ireland to foster closer contact between north and south.
Some of the SDLP ministers, though significantly not Hume, were prepared to compromise and delay setting up the council to keep the executive going, but in May 1974, after it was only five months in office, the loyalists took control of the power stations and enforced a general strike, shattering the entire Sunningdale package.
Hume’s support for the all-Ireland option was quietly noted by several of his colleagues. From this point on, he was at odds with his own party. Increasingly uncomfortable, first Paddy Devlin and then Fitt felt forced to jump ship. Both sensed that Hume was planning to build a purely nationalist party with a violence-free Sinn Féin on board.
He succeeded Fitt as leader, but the changeover failed to unite the party, and before long his autocratic style led some members to call him “Mussolini”.
Events surrounding the 1981 Fermanagh-South Tyrone byelection highlighted the internal tension. When Hume decreed that the party would not stand against the imprisoned IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands, who was intending to run from within the Maze prison, Austin Currie, a senior SDLP figure, strongly disagreed and prepared to run himself. When nominations closed there was indeed no SDLP nomination, but a 15-minute period of grace was fully exploited by the IRA to force out an independent nationalist candidate, giving Sands a clear field. Currie was standing by with a completed set of nomination papers, but the returning officer quickly ruled that the period of grace only enabled a candidate to stand down. He therefore refused to accept Currie’s nomination and the dying hunger striker won the seat.
By this time, Hume was fighting on every front. He was elected to the Constitutional Convention in 1975, but when it collapsed he decided to boycott James Prior’s plans for a new Stormont Assembly and instead persuaded the Dublin government to set up the New Ireland Forum, to explore all-Ireland political options. This project eventually led to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which gave the Irish an unprecedented diplomatic foothold in Belfast and much closer oversight of the way Britain conducted its affairs in Northern Ireland.
A guiding principle for Hume was that violence compromised the cause and only delayed peace. At a time when it was utterly taboo to do so, Hume and Father Alec Reid, a clerical intermediary, therefore initiated secret talks with Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Féin. The protracted dialogue that followed with the IRA and other parties culminated in Hume’s most notable achievement: engineering the ceasefire of August 1994, when the IRA and loyalist combatants agreed to a total cessation of violence.
What became known as the Hume-Adams initiative predictably created a tsunami of criticism. Loyalists feared Hume was plotting to undermine their link with Britain and suck them into a disadvantageous all-Ireland framework. The Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist party, denounced Hume as a “message boy for the IRA” and prayed for “the great God to put his spanner in the machinery of Irish unity”.
Hume was unfazed. “You can’t eat a flag,” he said. He strongly believed that unyielding unionists needed to come to terms with a modern world in which Britain had no strategic or economic interest in Ireland and the European dimension was paramount. “If the word ‘no’ was removed from the English language, unionists would be speechless,” he said.
While the undercover talks proceeded, they cloaked internal rivalries within the party dating back to 1974. More significantly, many SDLP stalwarts who despised Sinn Féin began to doubt where Hume was actually leading them. Their worries multiplied as loyalist thugs intermittently carried out attacks on the homes of prominent members.
The first tangible sign that Hume’s international door-knocking was having an effect came in 1976 when President Jimmy Carter signalled that the US would be prepared to give economic backing to any stable political settlement. When direct elections to the European parliament were introduced in 1979, Hume won one of the three Northern Ireland seats, providing a platform to demonstrate his growing prestige in Europe.
After becoming a Westminster MP in 1983, again for Foyle, Hume persuasively built powerful allies in the European Union and the US. The extraordinary clout he wielded in London and Dublin was matched in Brussels and, especially, Washington, where he became so able to influence policymaking that Senator Edward Kennedy, one of his most powerful patrons, described him as the 101st senator.
Hume travelled widely promoting his formula for peace in what his closest party aides described as the “single transferable speech”. His ideas and conciliatory language had been readily accepted by the two governments and recycled as their own on the way to achieving the power-sharing Good Friday agreement of 1998.
In many ways it was a vindication of all he had worked for. However, in the end the concrete prejudice and frozen mindsets that characterised the two Irish traditions prevented Hume from fulfilling the entirety of his vision, his intellectual contribution to challenging political thinking and bringing outside influences to bear on the Irish problem.
For years he had seemed indefatigable, but his health was being slowly compromised by the stress and strain of his constant travelling and daunting workload. Sometimes he cracked in public, snapping at radio and television interviewers, once even gripping John Major by the lapels and urging him to make concessions for peace. There were short spells in hospital and constant appeals from friends to ease up, but the restless Hume refused.
By the turn of the century it was all too evident that he was succumbing to dementia and confusion, and when the devolved Northern Ireland executive was established following the Good Friday agreement its nationalist deputy first minister was Hume’s SDLP colleague Seamus Mallon.
However, before long the SDLP was being eclipsed by Sinn Féin and the political landscape changed. Many felt that that was what Hume had long intended.
It was not until 2004 that he announced his complete retirement from politics, having shepherded in Mark Durkan as his successor as SDLP leader in 2001. Hume did not contest the 2004 European election or the 2005 general election, in which Durkan retained the Foyle seat for the SDLP.
Born in Derry, John was the eldest of seven children. His father, Samuel, lost his ship repair job after the end of the second world war and never worked again. His mother, Annie, as in many working-class Derry families, was the breadwinner, toiling late into the night making shirt collars.
At the age of 10, John won a scholarship to St Columb’s college, one of the first working-class Roman Catholics to benefit from reform of the education system. Encouraged by his father’s advice to “stick to the books”, he went on to St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, to study for the priesthood. Though he gave up that aspiration, he gained a BA in French and history (1958) and returned home to teach and to immerse himself in Derry’s murky politics.
During this period he met Pat Hone, another teacher. They married in 1960 and eventually had five children – two sons and three daughters, Terese, Aine, Aidan, John and Mo. As the years went by and they grew up, each one of them played their part in their father’s business, taking calls at all hours and often welcoming distinguished guests from every corner of the world to call in for tea. Hume entertained President Bill Clinton and his voluminous entourage several times as conflict turned progressively to an uneasy peace, just as Hume had hoped.
Hume’s many long promotional trips eventually paid off as the most powerful figures in business and politics recognised Northern Ireland’s potential as an investment location. If the ceasefire wobbled on occasion he dismissed it as a little local difficulty. On the prospects for peace and stability, he recalled what his mother used to say – “Look at that milk bottle on the table, it’s half-full not half-empty.”
In 2012, after he was made a papal knight, Hume finally retired. In 2015 Pat announced that he was experiencing memory loss and had been diagnosed with dementia.
She and their children survive him.
• John Hume, politician, born 18 January 1937; died 3 August 2020
• This article was amended on 12 August 2020. In 1972-73 William Whitelaw was Northern Ireland secretary rather than home secretary.