Hume’s long shadow shows the way to the light

Years ago I was in Derry, visiting places and interviewing people in an effort to find stories to tell audiences outside of Ireland that would help them understand the darker moments of our history.

Together with a Swedish colleague, I found myself in a bed and breakfast in Northern Ireland that had been one of the key sites in the slow, painful building of peace in the province.

It was to this place that John Hume had invited politicians and paramilitaries, diplomats and deacons, gunmen and gombeens to explore the possibility of bringing the violence that had blighted Northern Ireland for decades to an end.

First came the suits and the clerics and the uniforms, men and the odd woman anointed by some state or body to speak on behalf of the powerful without ever really saying anything.

Progress was slow. No-one wanted to give anything away, but he persisted.

Then, one night, John told the woman of the house that he had invited men there.

Violent men.

IRA men.

And that when they came to the house they might have guns, but that he had told them that under no circumstances could they be brought into the house.

Needless to say she was terrified, and even years afterwards she hummed and hawed about revealing the name of her business in public, lest she be a target.

She expressed these fears to John Hume, a man who forever looked like he was just about to slide out of whatever suit he was wearing mid-sentence, and that it wouldn’t bother him one bit as long as he said what he had to say.

“I’ll worry about the IRA, missus. You worry about the tea.”

She put the kettle on, as she had done for all her previous guests. The men came and left their guns outside.

Years later, she watched with pride as he received the Nobel Peace Prize as a reward for his bravery in talking to the men who, until then, could not – and many said should not – be talked to.

As we left the woman’s house we knew that our final chapter in this story would forever be unwritten; John had already begun the slide into dementia and was no longer receiving visitors or giving interviews.

Having passed away today, he will be lionised as a man of peace, and rightly so; but his death reminds us that much of what he fought for still goes unfulfilled.

There is much mention of his work in bringing about an end to the violence, but little has happened to bring about the kind of social justice that he craved, and the desire for which propelled him into politics.

He solved the greatest part of the puzzle, but illness robbed him of the chance to complete it.

His magnificent legacy now overshadows the social democratic politics that it was founded upon; we speak of him only in terms of the alchemy of his peace-making, and not the drudgery of his activism – how he set up and promoted credit unions, how he sought to replace the sham of Northern Irish democracy as it was with something more real and tangible and inclusive.

Most telling of all is that he stands alone; no other figure in Irish politics is as beloved, as respected or as revered.

But those elected representatives who now queue up to eulogise him are barely worthy of speaking his name. Their crass sound-bytes fail to fathom both the scale of his achievements and the essence of his being. They have been somewhat blinded by his brilliance, yet lack the curiosity to understand it or the courage and energy to emulate it.

The greatest way to pay homage to Hume is not to speak highly of him. He was never in it for the credit or the baubles and trappings of power.

It is to look at who he was and what he stood for – a social democrat committed to ensuring that everyone was treated with dignity and respect and could live out their lives in safety, security and prosperity.

Those who claim to have been inspired by him – especially the intellectual pygmies now queueing up to pay tribute to this Colossus – have no choice but to shoulder that mantle.

We need to live as he lived, and to lead as he led, always striving for the greater good.

His greatness and humble manner cast a long shadow over all of us in his wake, but in his humility and dignity he has already shown us the way out of it.

Though no longer blighted by violence, Northern Ireland and the island as a whole never reached the heights he expected of it – at least, not before he passed.

Let our gratitude not be empty words, soon forgotten.

Let it be the politics of diversity and inclusion and persistent compassion, the sense of solidarity that our nation’s big brother John taught us over all those years.

 

 

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