Today, on MercatorNet, I write about an Irish hero, John Hume, beginning with my account of a personal encounter back in 1969.
It was a cold, cold night in the city of Derry on February 9, 1969. The world’s media had descended on the province of Ulster. There were no barricades, bombs or bullets yet, but after months of street protests, police harassment and auxiliary police brutality against civil rights demonstrators, Northern Ireland had something of the whiff of a powder-keg about it. Earlier that week, prime minister Terrence O’Neill had dissolved the Stormont parliament and declared a general election.
Everyone knew that this election had the promise of being the beginning of the end of an ancien regime but no one would have guessed that the end was going to take so long — or to be so pain-soaked and murderous. The election itself solved nothing but it did mark one truly significant event in the history of Ireland — the entry of John Hume into the political life of his country. From the moment on that cold Saturday night in the old City Hotel, under the shadow of the Guild Hall clock tower, when Hume decided he was going to contest the parliamentary seat for the city, he never left the political limelight. He was to remain center-stage throughout the long and bitter slow-burn civil war which Ulster was to experience for the next 30 years.
It was a war, euphemistically called “The Troubles”, which for those 30 years was to unsettle the peace of those green and pleasant lands which make up that historic archipelago to the north west of Europe. When peace eventually came, Hume was among its architects — probably its chief architect — and for his heroism and his constancy in forging that peace, he was deservedly awarded a Nobel Prize. On that wintry night in 1969, peace and justice in his land was already his goal.
I sat with him in the bar of the hotel that evening as the local civil rights activists of the city congregated there to discuss and take the measure among themselves as to what should be done in the light of the political development which had just occurred. The sitting member of parliament for the constituency was the veteran Nationalist Party leader, Eddie McAteer. Nationalist ideology had not become irrelevant in Ireland but the issue of the Unionist government’s denial of basic civil rights to a large minority of people — distrusted because they were Catholics — was now the political problem to be resolved.
John Hume, whom I was interviewing for my paper, talked with me late into that night and was clearly anguishing over whether or not he should run for the seat. For him, however, it was not a question of whether he might win or lose — he was certain to win the seat if he ran. It was a question of loyalty to McAteer, a man who was a friend and who had faithfully served the people of Derry, for a quarter of a century. But it was also clear to Hume that the old politics of the province had to change and the historic preoccupations of the Nationalist Party were no longer fit for purpose. In the end he saw that he had no choice. He decided to contest the seat. On Monday, 10 February, he launched his campaign.
Read my full post here.