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Extracts from ‘John Hume in America’

John Hume is a pivotal figure in modern Irish history. As leader of the SDLP he carried the banner for constitutional Irish nationalism during the Northern Ireland Troubles and when it came to bringing those Troubles to an end he was an indispensable figure in the negotiations involving parties and governments. Throughout his peak political years, Hume maintained the very closest of contacts with the political leaders of Irish America and much of his work for peace and reconciliation took visible form during and after his visits to the United States. “John Hume in America: From Derry to DC” is an account of those visits and how Hume drew Irish America and the United States more deeply into the peace process. The extracts from the book printed here were selected by the author, Maurice Fitzpatrick.

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The rise of John Hume in Derry politics came against the backdrop of civil unrest and discontent felt by the Catholic minority in the North of Ireland.

The first augury of the Civil Rights Movement was the University for Derry protest in February 1965, which was remarkable in that it represented the entire community of Derry. Hume fronted this cross-community rally and motorcade to Stormont Parliament in February 1965 to establish the ‘second university’ in Derry, the ‘second city’ of the Northern Irish State. This 25,000-strong motorcade was one of the earliest and strongest expressions of non-violent protest in Northern Ireland, and was comparable in intent and conviction to the Selma to Montgomery march, led by Martin Luther King the following month, March 1965.

Above all, the rigged system of allocating houses embittered the predominately Nationalist electoral ward of Derry. As journalist and activist Eamonn McCann observed: ‘We had thousands of people on a housing list and everybody in Derry knew that one of the reasons that more houses were not being built was that … to give a person a house was to give them a vote: only householders could vote and the Unionist Party in Derry had to be very circumspect about to whom it handed a vote.’

Unsurprisingly, then, it was more than anything else the housing situation that made it inevitable for John Hume to enter parliamentary politics.

The newly minted MP, elected to represent the Foyle constituency at the Parliament of Northern Ireland, had never before held political office. Nevertheless, he gave the impression of one who had considerably more experience than his thirty-two years and novice status might indicate. He had already represented Ireland in the United States during his presidency of the Irish Credit Union, and he was alert to the wider movements of the world, which were gathering pace: from Prague to Memphis equality movements were challenging traditions and demanding new approaches to politics. Such changes were the nub of what the Parliament of Northern Ireland in Stormont had stood against. Even so, Hume had considerable confidence in himself and in his approach to politics. The least parliamentary of parliaments, the atmosphere in Stormont towards the new, articulate generation hungry to establish themselves in Northern Ireland could hardly have been less welcoming. Yet, in spite of such intolerance, the sclerotic and self- perpetuating cycle of the rigged parliament was about to be unsettled by a parliamentarian of uncommon ability.

The first US president to break with the orthodoxy of non-interference on the part of the United States in ‘Britain’s domestic affairs’ was President Jimmy Carter. In the book, Carter explains why he chose to do so.

‘When I was elected President and gave my inaugural address, I called for the United States to be a champion of human rights and to promote peace everywhere we could in the world. Obviously, I learned very quickly that one of the main challenges for peace and human rights was in Northern Ireland, in its relationship with the rest of Ireland and also with Great Britain. Soon, Governor Hugh Carey from New York, Pat Moynihan and Ted Kennedy in the Senate, and Tip O’Neill started giving me information about it quite often. Pat Moynihan and the others, Tip O’Neill, would quote John Hume and his efforts for a peaceful resolution of the Irish problem. I became convinced that the United States should speak out for change on this issue and call for honouring the desire for the Northern Ireland people for peace – with Great Britain and the rest of Ireland – and also for recognition by the international community. So I drafted a statement that was issued the first year I was in office, not only calling for the United States to be directly involved but also to promise that if peace was achieved, the United States would join with others in giving financial assistance to job creation.’

It was a very supportive and very benign one-page statement. Yet what was striking about the 1977 Carter Statement was quite how much it seemed to antagonise the State Department and the British Embassy, whose resistance was vehement. President Carter provides the political context:

‘Well, the State Department was not in favour of what I did, as you may know. But I didn’t really consult with them too thoroughly. I had a lot of confidence in Pat Moynihan, and Tip O’Neill was visiting me every day. Hugh Carey was very important to me as a politician, so was Ted Kennedy.’

The Four Horsemen were in a position to convey the intricacies of the problem to Carter – the provocations and injustices felt by the Nationalist community in the North, and not simply the IRA response to them. Yet, while some commentators, both in the United States and Ireland, equivocated on the use of violence to settle the Northern Irish issue, Carter’s statement was clear that if the White House was to play a role, absolutely no tolerance of violent methods was acceptable. It is a statement of non-violence and that was in absolute accord with John Hume’s view of things, and President Carter was adamant that violence from either side had no place in resolution of the Irish Question:

‘Well, there was violence on both sides. I think the British exhibited unnecessary violence in trying to control the Northern Irish citizens, and the IRA obviously committed acts of violence against Great Britain, including some of the top people who lived in Great Britain. Lord Mountbatten, I remember, was killed. So the violence on both sides caused me to be very careful, to make sure that my statement back in 1977 did not encourage either side to continue with their violent acts. Peace was very important to me as well as human rights, those were the two things that were important to my whole administration.’

Jeffrey Donaldson witnessed the Unionist backlash to the Anglo-Irish Agreement and concluded that protest against an internationally recognised agreement, which had the backing of the United States, was foredoomed.

How did a young Unionist politician like Donaldson at the time (Donaldson was elected at the age of 22 in 1985) perceive John Hume, given that he had an inside track in DC and an inside track in Dublin?

‘Initially there was very little outreach on the part of John Hume towards Unionism. I think John Hume’s view at that time was that he was not ready to engage with Unionism. He needed first of all to create the framework within which a future negotiation could take place; John Hume disengaged from the Assembly, wasn’t involved in a dialogue with Unionism, and instead was dealing at a more international level and dealing with the British and Irish governments. I think that it was a mistake that Unionism did not recognise earlier the importance of that influence, the significance of that influence, the way in which Hume would use the pressure point of Washington to apply pressure on London to do business with Dublin, almost to the exclusion of the Unionists. So I do not think that we really caught on to that soon enough. It was only in the latter years that we began to recognise that there was no point howling at the moon for John Hume and his influence in Washington. We needed to be on the Hill. We needed to be in Washington giving the counterbalance to that influence and saying, ‘any solution in Northern Ireland has to be one which both sides can endorse.’

“John Hume in America: From Derry to DC” is published by Irish Academic Press/Merrion Press. It is available on and Barnes &