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Blog on John Hume, an Irish peacemaker and European statesman

"The European Union is the best example in the history of the world of conflict resolution" - John Hume in the European Parliament, 4th of May 2004

Throughout last year, I was involved in a number of events marking the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. That anniversary represented an important opportunity to remind people of what was achieved in 1998 and of its legacy in the form of two decades of peace in Northern Ireland as well as greatly improved relations on the island of Ireland, and between Ireland and Britain. 

One political leader from that time who, I believe, deserves special credit is John Hume, who was a deserved recipient, alongside David Trimble, of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize. I have been involved in a number of discussions following the screening of Maurice Fitzpatrick's documentary film, John Hume in America, most recently in Hartford, Connecticut, at the invitation of Congressman John Larson and last year in Springfield with Congressman Richie Neal, who chairs the Congressional Friends of Ireland. I have also reviewed the book that accompanied the film for the Irish Times. 

At that time, I concluded that “among the many things for which he (Hume) deserves credit is the fact that he brought Irish-Americans along with him on a journey that helped turn the US into a not inconsiderable force for peace and reconciliation in Ireland.”   In the film and the book, Maurice Fitzpatrick shows how, with relentless determination, Hume undertook the long-haul task of encouraging the US administration to take an active interest in Irish affairs. In doing this, he had to overcome, with the support of major Irish American political figures, an inbuilt resistance in Washington to doing anything with regard to Northern Ireland that did not square with British views.

I also participated last year in the American launch of Sean Farren’s compendium of Hume’s many speeches during his forty years in public life, John Hume in his own words (Dublin, 2018). This book charts Hume’s persistent quest for a peaceful, political solution in Northern Ireland based on agreement and partnership between the two traditions of unionism and nationalism.  As he repeatedly put it, “the real division of Ireland is not a line on a map, but is in the minds and hearts of the people.”

One of the things that shines through in Farren’s book is how much of a role the European Union played in the evolution of Hume’s thinking. Hume possessed a European outlook from an early stage, but it was his election to the European Parliament in 1979 that turned him into a figure of European standing.  Hume was excited by the prospect of a directly-elected European parliament, which he saw as “an historic act of reconciliation among people who have been ancient enemies and who twice in this century have slaughtered one another with a savagery unparalleled in human history. Yet they have been able to agree on a process whereby they can grow in harmony and agreement. The lesson should not be lost on the people of Northern Ireland.”  

Hume came to believe that Europe offered a broader horizon and a stage on which shared interests could cross the traditional divide between unionism and nationalism. His hope was that “Europe can be a bridge on which we stand together”. During my 4-year assignment in Brussels in the early 1990s, I visited the European Parliament in Strasbourg quite often and recall that there was a degree of cooperation across the political divide. This was based on shared interests, for example, with regard to the Common Agricultural Policy and EU cohesion funds where all Irish MEPs, from North and South, nationalist and unionist, tended to be broadly on the same page.    

In one speech delivered before a European audience, Hume saw EU membership as a potential way out for Britain and Ireland from the "dark tunnel in which their relations had been trapped since the seventeenth century". He argued that: "The European Community, with its history of conflict far deeper than ours, and its experience of conflict resolution, is an inspiration to us and a flame of hope." In the event of political agreement being achieved in Northern Ireland he expected Europe to assist with a major programme of economic reconstruction. 

With Hume at its helm, the SDLP became a committed exponent of European integration. He saw European engagement as a means by which Northern Ireland could set aside historical animosities and focus on the promotion of economic development, social justice, human rights and equality of opportunity. As a respected MEP, he was able to engineer European Parliament debates on Northern Ireland and to spur European interest in the resolution of conflict there. 

He could be deeply critical of European institutions for not living up to the aspirations embedded in the EU Treaties, but he invariably saw Europe as a productive framework for resolving a range of contemporary problems. His view was "the democratic nation state was no longer a sufficient political entity to allow people to have adequate control" over economic and technological developments. He wanted to "optimise the real sovereignty of the peoples of Europe rather than ossifying our democratic development around limited notions of national sovereignty." As far as he was concerned, sovereignty and independence had changed their meaning in the post-Cold War of the 1990s. Shared sovereignty and interdependence at European level would, he believed, rid Ireland of its age-old obsession with Britain. 

The European Union was not directly involved in the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but, like the United States, it was a constant source of goodwill, encouragement and financial support for peace in Ireland. 

In the current negotiations on the UK's departure from the EU, our European partners have been steadfast in their understanding of the vital importance of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and of protecting the Good Friday Agreement.

In these Brexit-infused times, it is well to recall how a peacemaker and statesman of John Hume's calibre integrated a constructive European vision into his political credo with beneficial effects on the search for peace in Northern Ireland, in which he was a key player. In the midst of convoluted arguments about the Withdrawal Agreement and the Irish 'backstop', it is easy to forget the EU's standing as an unrivalled peace project, something of which John Hume repeatedly reminded us. 

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador to the United States

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