A mural created in Derry to honour John Hume along with fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa

It was a cold, cold night in the city of Derry on February 9, 1969. The world’s media had descended on the province of Ulster. There were no barricades, bombs or bullets yet, but after months of street protests, police harassment and auxiliary police brutality against civil rights demonstrators, Northern Ireland had something of the whiff of a powder-keg about it. Earlier that week, prime minister Terrence O’Neill had dissolved the Stormont parliament and declared a general election.

Everyone knew that this election had the promise of being the beginning of the end of an ancien regime but no one would have guessed that the end was going to take so long — or to be so pain-soaked and murderous. The election itself solved nothing but it did mark one truly significant event in the history of Ireland — the entry of John Hume into the political life of his country. From the moment on that cold Saturday night in the old City Hotel, under the shadow of the Guild Hall clock tower, when Hume decided he was going to contest the parliamentary seat for the city, he never left the political limelight. He was to remain center-stage throughout the long and bitter slow-burn civil war which Ulster was to experience for the next 30 years. 

It was a war, euphemistically called “The Troubles”, which for those 30 years was to unsettle the peace of those green and pleasant lands which make up that historic archipelago to the north west of Europe. When peace eventually came, Hume was among its architects — probably its chief architect — and for his heroism and his constancy in forging that peace, he was deservedly awarded a Nobel Prize. On that wintry night in 1969, peace and justice in his land was already his goal.

I sat with him in the bar of the hotel that evening as the local civil rights activists of the city congregated there to discuss and take the measure among themselves as to what should be done in the light of the political development which had just occurred. The sitting member of parliament for the constituency was the veteran Nationalist Party leader, Eddie McAteer. Nationalist ideology had not become irrelevant in Ireland but the issue of the Unionist government’s denial of basic civil rights to a large minority of people — distrusted because they were Catholics — was now the political problem to be resolved.

John Hume, whom I was interviewing for my paper, talked with me late into that night and was clearly anguishing over whether or not he should run for the seat. For him, however, it was not a question of whether he might win or lose — he was certain to win the seat if he ran. It was a question of loyalty to McAteer, a man who was a friend and who had faithfully served the people of Derry, for a quarter of a century. But it was also clear to Hume that the old politics of the province had to change and the historic preoccupations of the Nationalist Party were no longer fit for purpose. In the end he saw that he had no choice. He decided to contest the seat. On Monday, 10 February, he launched his campaign.

Hume was born in Derry and after his years in university returned there to teach history in his old high school, St. Columb’s College, the alma mater of another Irish Nobel laureate, the poet Seamus Heaney. The troubled community of Derry, bitterly divided along politically infected religious lines, had torn at Hume’s head and heart for years. When Britain’s 1944 Education Act brought universal access to secondary schooling for young Catholics in the North, it brought with it a new level of political awareness. This in turn exploded into the demand for civil rights in the 1960s. It was in this movement — non-political and street based — that John Hume first came to prominence as a leader. 

When he decided to run for parliament there was at first some resentment. The demand for civil rights some said, strangely, should not be mixed up with politics. Inevitably hostile voices said he was using the movement for personal political advancement. Not many were buying that line. That very evening one man summed up John Hume for me, historically and prophetically: “John Hume has given his life for the people of Derry”. That was indeed to be the story of his life – not just for Derry but for the people of Northern Ireland and of all on these islands, and to boot, a symbol of peace wherever strife, injustice and warfare raise their ugly heads. The tributes and accolades last week bore witness to that life in full. No one, but no one, seemed to fail to come forward to praise this man and his life’s work.

In the man’s soul there was of course a deep Christian faith which was at the core of his personal integrity. This was recognised by all for whom faith is the value binding all other values. It was touchingly appropriate that in the week of his death (he died on Monday, 3 August after a long illness) one of the readings of the Catholic Mass told us, The rash man has no integrity; but the just man, because of his faith, shall live. (Hab. 2. 4). Mark Durkan, his successor as MP for Foyle and his right-hand man, recalled last week that Hume would often say: “It’s important not to react to the reaction, because you lose judgement and perspective.”

Belfast’s Catholic Bishop, Noel Treanor, recognised Hume’s “strong personal faith” and described how he “uniquely shaped a new and prophetic political narrative which enabled the decommissioning and disarmament of weapons and generated an infrastructure for a peace process that led to the Good Friday Agreement, and the foundations of a new politics that is his lasting legacy”.

Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh spoke of how, as a Catholic, Hume put the Church’s Social Teaching into practice, working ceaselessly for “a process of reconciliation through which the dignity of every human person is recognised and upheld.”

At the funeral there were tributes from the Pope, the Dalai Lama, former US president Bill Clinton and the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Also at the funeral, the symbolism of the presence of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of the devolved Northern Irish government — the unionist and the republican, respectively, sitting together was not unnoticed.

In his message, read at the funeral, Pope Francis paid tribute to Hume’s achievements as a peacemaker, saying he was “mindful of the Christian faith that inspired his untiring efforts to promote dialogue, reconciliation and peace among the people of Northern Ireland.”

President Clinton, who was himself instrumental in the process which brought peace to these islands, spoke of Hume as one “who fought his long war for peace in Northern Ireland, his chosen weapons an unshakable commitment to non-violence, persistence, kindness and love”. 

“He was Ireland’s Martin Luther King,” Clinton said.

But for John Hume, it all began with Derry. To him, as he described it to me after making his decision to run, Derry was a symbol. 

“I have chosen Derry as the place to fight”, he said, “because I have always believed that Derry holds the key to the future of the North. A mandate from the people of Derry will be a mandate for change from the people of the country. Derry is, above all, the place where the two traditions of Ulster meet in apparent dead-lock. If a solution is found here, then it will follow elsewhere. I believe that a politics based on the lines of religion in Northern Ireland means that our problems have been insoluble down through the years, and will remain so. This must be changed if we are to have a decent community in the North.”    

“I feel there is a need for a strong and energetic opposition in Stormont,” he said, and went on to express dissatisfaction with the efforts of the Nationalist Party. But again, his criticism was not without sympathy, seeing their failure not in lack of effort, “but rather in the whole sectarian basis which is their lot.” 

Before he entered politics John Hume was a communitarian, engaging with local communities on self-help initiatives wherever they could be activated. He was one of the founders of the Credit Union movement in the city. A key element of his political philosophy was that there should be much greater participation by the people in political life. The Civil Rights Movement was a manifestation of this.

“I believe parliamentary democracy everywhere is in danger at the moment because of the gap between the governed and the governors,” he said. “This is one other thing which we must urgently seek to solve.” Strangely, 50 years later, it is a challenge still facing democratic states.

“I believe the people need a fresh approach.” With that belief he launched his political career. He believed people would understand this and that they were capable of laying aside their old traditions and prejudices and trust someone who would refuse to talk in terms of Orange or Green; Protestant in opposition to Catholic; “them” in opposition to “us,” and talk instead of “the people of Derry”. And here we have another recurring challenge, when the assertion that the lives of one group of people matter seems to require the denial that all human lives matter. 

Back in 1984, one writer described him in this way: “Hume has an almost Biblical sense of destiny — to lead his people into the promised New Ireland. To do that he asks for miracles.”

It was in the Easter of 1998 that Northern Ireland’s largest political parties signed a peace agreement which became known as the Good Friday agreement and in the following autumn the Nobel Committee award the Peace Prize to John Hume for his work, as Catholic leader of the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party, in forging the peace agreement. 

There are many in Ireland today who feel that none of the key figures in the troubled side of that country’s history can match him — not since Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell in the 19th century. There can only be ambivalence about the founders of the modern Irish State, all of whom, for many, are tainted by their compromise with the violence embedded in its origins.

Success in the kind of mission undertaken by John Hume is hard to measure. The best one can say is that it is a continuum, that rather than a “win, win” result, what you get is a “win some, lose some” result. That is where Northern Ireland’s community still stands. But it is in a far, far better place today than it was when John Hume launched his political career and triumphantly entered the Northern Ireland parliament in a snowy February, 1969.

Michael Kirke was born in Ireland. In 1966 he graduated from University College Dublin (History and Politics). In that year he began working on the sub-editorial desk of The Evening...