John Hume, Nobel Peace Prize winner, 1937-2020

John Hume, who has died at the age of 83, made a singular contribution to securing peace in Northern Ireland after decades of political violence that claimed more than 3,000 lives in one of Europe’s most entrenched conflicts.

As the leader of moderate, mainly Catholic, Irish nationalists who want the region to leave the UK and join the Irish Republic, he rejected violence as the relentless cycle of killings threatened to spill over into civil war.

He played a pivotal role in coaxing the outlawed Irish Republican Army to stop its militant campaign to force Britain from Northern Ireland, leading eventually to the Good Friday peace pact of 1998, which endures to this day. 

Hume shared the Nobel Peace Prize that year with David Trimble, then leader of pro-British Ulster Unionists, for his efforts to bring an end to the Troubles.

It was a just reward for Hume after he endured sharp criticism of his long engagement with Gerry Adams, then leader of Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political wing, from many people opposed to any talks with the paramilitaries. 

Hume (right) with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble (left) and Bono, lead singer of U2, in May 1998 © Crispin Rodwell/Reuters

That risky effort at times seemed destined to fail as attacks by the IRA and pro-British loyalist paramilitary groups continued before they separately agreed to a ceasefire in 1994.

It all took a personal toll on Hume himself. He broke down at a funeral in 1993 after loyalists killed eight people in a County Derry bar, days after an IRA bomb killed 10 people in Belfast, including the bomber. 

But he took encouragement when the daughter of one the victims urged him to continue his efforts to find a path away from the violence. “The young lady came up, put her arms around me and said: ‘We prayed for you last night around my daddy’s coffin and we hope that you will continue with your talks so that more people will not have to suffer what we have suffered,’” he said. 

“That was an enormously moving message when you think — and I thought of some of my critics — and here’s people who suffered from assassination and they weren’t looking for revenge, they wanted an entire end to all of that killing. It moved me so deeply that I broke down on the spot.” 

Hume, a teacher, started out in politics in his home city, known always to nationalists as Derry but to unionists as Londonderry. He was a civil rights campaigner for nationalists who had suffered discrimination in decades of domination by mainly Protestant unionists who want Northern Ireland to stay in the UK.

He was a founder member and then leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party, the voice of moderate nationalists during the Troubles, which rejected physical force as the region descended into violence. Micheál Martin, Irish premier, said Hume “kept hope alive” during the darkest days of sectarian strife. 

He maintained deep connections with successive Irish governments in halting efforts to broker a settlement with Britain. He went early to the global stage, harnessing EU support for the region as a member of the European Parliament, and forging lasting links with Irish-American leaders in Washington, who threw their weight behind constitutional nationalism.

The strength of his relationships on Capitol Hill bore fruit spectacularly when Bill Clinton, then US president, aligned with Irish and British leaders in the push for peace.

Hume with US senator Edward Kennedy in 1977 © AP
Hume (centre) and his wife Pat with former US president Bill Clinton, walking across the Peace Bridge in Londonderry, also known as Derry © Peter Morrison/AP

Mr Clinton on Monday praised Hume’s “enduring sense of honour” as “he kept marching on against all odds” toward a brighter future. “Through his faith in principled compromise, and his ability to see his adversaries as human beings, John helped forge the peace that has held to this day.”

Hume was already known around the world as a voice of moderation when he entered secret talks in 1986 with Mr Adams, at the invitation of Alec Reid, a Belfast-based Catholic priest who was an intermediary between Dublin and the paramilitaries in early days of the peace process.

Many bleak years passed before the ceasefires that led eventually to painstaking political talks backed by Britain, Ireland and the US that culminated in the Good Friday pact between nationalists and unionists. 

The deal, signed by the British premier at the time Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern, established a devolved power-sharing government between opposing political traditions that had been at loggerheads for centuries.

It bore Hume’s imprint by concentrating on institutions to mediate the historically fraught relationship between the two communities and Ireland and Britain.

“Ireland is not a romantic dream; it is not a flag; it is 4.5 million people divided into two powerful traditions,” he once said. 

“The solution will be found not on the basis of victory for either, but on the basis of agreement and a partnership between both. The real division of Ireland is not a line drawn on the map, but in the minds and hearts of its people.”

Although it took years to bed down and crises frequently erupted, the deal succeeded: the threat of violence was mostly removed from everyday life. Now accepted by all but a small minority of dissident paramilitaries, it has endured despite the persistence of deep tensions between the current generation of unionist and nationalist leaders.

Tributes have been paid from across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland since Hume’s family announced his death on Monday following a long battle with dementia.