Northern Ireland peace campaigner John Hume dies

John Hume, the Irish nationalist leader who forged the path to the 1998 Good Friday peace deal that ended the troubles in Northern Ireland, has died after a long illness. He was 83. 

Hume, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to stop the grim cycle of political killings that blighted the region for decades, became known around the world as a voice of moderation and constitutional politics when the region seemed at times to be skirting close to civil war. 

There were tributes from Ireland and Britain on Monday after Hume’s family announced his death, saying he was very much loved. “John was a husband, a father, a grandfather, a great-grandfather and a brother,” they said.

Micheál Martin, Irish premier, said Hume “kept hope alive” during the darkest days of paramilitary terrorism and sectarian strife. “For over four decades, he was a passionate advocate for a generous, outward-looking and all-encompassing concept of nationalism and republicanism. For him, the purpose of politics was to bring people together, not split them apart,” he said.

Boris Johnson, British prime minister, said Hume was “quite simply a political giant”, adding that there would have been no peace agreement without him. “He stood proudly in the tradition that was totally opposed to violence and committed to pursuing his objectives by exclusively peaceful and democratic means.”

Tony Blair, who signed the Good Friday Agreement as UK prime minister, called Hume a “political titan” who had influenced his own politics in many ways. 

“His contribution to peace in Northern Ireland was epic and he will rightly be remembered for it. He was insistent it was possible, tireless in pursuit of it and endlessly creative in seeking ways of making it happen,” he said.

John Hume in May 1998 (right) next to British prime minister Tony Blair (centre) and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble (left) just before the referendum that ratified the Good Friday peace deal © Crispin Rodwell/Reuters

Hume started out in politics as a civil rights campaigner in Londonderry, also known as Derry, in the 1960s. Throughout the troubles he always rejected paramilitary violence as a means to advance the cause of mostly Catholic nationalists who want Northern Ireland to leave the UK and join the Irish Republic. 

But he was a key figure in the long drive to coax Irish Republican Army militants to stop their deadly campaign to force Britain from the region in secret talks with Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political wing.

Mr Adams said in a statement that Hume “had the courage to take real risks for peace” to meet him in 1986, saying it was a breakthrough moment. “This was at a time when the great and the good in the political and media establishments on these islands were committed to marginalising and demonising Sinn Féin.” 

Hume’s engagement with Adams, for which he was sharply criticised by opponents of any talks with paramilitaries, helped clear an eventual path to a 1994 ceasefire.

After painstaking talks backed by Britain, Ireland and the US, nationalists and mainly Protestant unionists who wanted Northern Ireland to stay in the UK signed the 1998 Good Friday peace accord. The agreement established a devolved power-sharing government between opposing political traditions that had been at loggerheads for centuries.

John Hume is detained by a British soldier on the streets of Londonderry, also known as Derry, in August 1971 © Mike Hollist/ANL/Shutterstock

The preceding 30 years of violence claimed more than 3,000 lives. The agreement, now accepted by all but a small minority of dissident paramilitaries, has endured despite persisting deep tensions between the current generation of unionist and nationalist leaders. 

Hume was leader and a founder member of the Social Democratic and Labour party, the voice of moderate nationalists during the long years of the troubles, which rejected physical force. 

He had deep connections with successive Irish governments in fraught efforts to broker a settlement with Britain and forged lasting links with Irish-American leaders in Washington who threw their weight behind the peace effort. 

Colum Eastwood, SDLP leader, said Hume was Ireland’s most significant and consequential political figure. “It is no exaggeration to say that each and every one of us now lives in the Ireland Hume imagined — an island at peace and free to decide its own destiny. This is a historic moment on this island but most of all it is a moment of deep, deep sadness,” he said.

Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister in the power-sharing executive established under the Good Friday pact and leader of the Democratic Unionists, said she hoped Hume’s family could take some comfort from the peace he helped to create. “John was a giant figure in Irish nationalism but also in the wider life of Northern Ireland,” she said. 

David Trimble, former leader of the Ulster Unionists who shared the 1998 Nobel Prize with Hume, said he would be remembered for the “bottom up” political structures in the Good Friday Agreement that ensured its success “unlike all the other initiatives” to end the violence. 

“He also will be remembered for the fact that — right from the outset of the troubles in Northern Ireland — he was opposed to violence and was making it clear time and time again that people have to achieve their objectives by a peaceful and democratic means. That meant for some people that their objectives could not be achieved.”