John Hume: reflections on a life well lived

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.- Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy

One of my earliest memories is watching a neighbour being shot. Another was of almost being caught, while on my way to primary school, in a culvert bomb attack launched by the IRA on the British army. The brother of a classmate was murdered by the SAS. A few years ago, I discovered that a bunch of loyalist paramilitaries had planned to massacre the children and staff of my Belleeks primary school. Fortunately for all of us, this was called off. Some war crimes were even too much for the war criminals of the North of Ireland.

I repeat these brushes with violence not to suggest that I am special in any way, but because these were typical life experiences for people living in the North of Ireland during the 70s and 80s. Indeed I was very lucky. Aside from a nasty kicking I once got from Shinners for having the temerity to canvas for the SDLP in West Belfast, my family was notably unscathed by the squalid little war that engulfed the North until John Hume finally managed to organise its ending.

I met John Hume a couple of times, but I doubt he ever remembered my name. I was a minor student activist in the SDLP, gone after a couple of years and never to return. So, it doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things that, from the first moment I heard of them, I was in favour of the Hume-Adams talks. It was, it seemed to me, an honourable effort towards peace and the logical extension of the philosophy of dialogue and persuasion that Hume had always advocated and that I had bought into early.

It is true that I did not think that the peace it ultimately brought would lead to Sinn Fein’s regrettable electoral ascendancy, as other more astute observers, such as Seamus Mallon, feared. But even in retrospect I think it a price worth paying. As has been said before: there are people alive today because of what Hume did to obtain peace. As Hume argued at the time, that is more important than the electoral success of any party.

Since his death some commentators have not even been able to wait until Hume was at rest in his grave before resurrecting the attacks that they began on him when he first sat down to talk with the Provos and that bore so heavily on him throughout those ghastly days. The thrust of their attack remains: because the peace process is imperfect, it is reprehensible. 

It is easy to be glib about war when it is not something that is likely to cut short your life or that of someone you love. That is something that the relatives of those butchered at Greysteel understood when one of their daughters told Hume they had prayed over her father’s coffin that he would be successful in his efforts with the Provos so that other families would not have to suffer as they had. 

Today it’s easy to indulge in the sort of maudlin glorifications beloved by Sinn Fein and the British Establishment of those who have taken up arms on their behalf. But I remember war too well to buy that nonsense. Ballymurphy, Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, the Miami Showband massacre, Kingsmill, the Shankill Butchers, La Mon, Enniskillen, may be selectively remembered still. But they were just larger examples of the “exchange of murders”, as Malachi O’Doherty once accurately described them, that typified the conflict.

In truth I’ve never found war anything other than a squalid matter, whether practiced in the North of Ireland, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Afghanistan or Angola. The scales of conflict in each place were different. But across the globe and through history each have in common that they enmesh ordinary people in systems of increasingly brutal inhumanity towards other people. This is true for just and unjust wars alike.

Of course as Bono noted in his bleak, beautiful lament for those massacred at Omagh, “hope and history don’t rhyme”. But they do have an assonance: a half rhyme.

Even a failed poet like me knows that the line “sometimes hope and history are in assonance” doesn’t have the quality of Heaney’s phrase or that of Bono. But that is where we are, and it is better than where we were. Musicians no longer have to worry about being targeted for playing to the “wrong” crowds. Dog fanciers no longer have to worry about being burned to death while having an evening out. Protesters for civil rights do not have to worry about being shot down in the streets by a foreign army. 

John Hume understood that imperfect peace is preferable to any war. His monumental life’s achievement in wresting that from the most nihilistic of conflicts is but another stepping-stone to a better society, to a better agreed society. 

It is for the rest of us to continue that journey now, remembering, as John Hume showed us, that no matter how bleak the moment, or imperfect the circumstances, if we put the sweat in, we also can overcome.

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