Historians Pay Tribute: ‘Today We Live In John Hume’s Ireland, And Thank God For That’Historians in the News
tags: Northern Ireland, Irish history, Troubles, Good Friday Accords
The numberless tributes have been heartening.
The right grace notes have been hit: John Hume’s lifelong commitment to non-violence; his tenacious pursuit of equality, including equal national dignity for Northern cultural Catholics; his unrivalled strategic eloquence in internationalizing the injustices of the North beyond these islands; and his recurrent bravery, never better illustrated than in opening the doors that enabled Sinn Féin and the IRA to walk toward peace.
Among the minor people who knew him our proudest moment must be sticking up for him amid the horrors of the Shankill, Greysteel and Loughinisland mass-killings of 1993-94. Hume knew what he was doing, and what he was doing was good – bringing an uncivil war to an end. He had no script; he improvised what was required, exploiting each moment as best he could. It is difficult to imagine who else could have done it, let alone done it better.
But before Hume sleeps with O’Connell, Parnell, and Martin Luther King, we should not forget the ingratitude. Loud voices in Dublin roared that he was being manipulated by terrorists, or that he was using the IRA to aid his own negotiating power. Some said worse. Had they crushed Hume’s spirit the bloody mess would have continued.
We should also not forget his intellectual toughness. He could negotiate, embarrass, and remonstrate with his sharp tongue and pen. He was void of blarney – even if he could sing schmaltz about Derry.
His review of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s States of Ireland in the Irish Times of October 9th, 1972 exhibits this diamond-hard intellectual side. Hume found it “difficult to find any central or clearly stated theme.” True, but ouch.
Then came the exhibition and shaming of the author’s vanity, followed by a political puncture: “There is no doubt that the family connections revealed in this book cover practically every aspect of the political spectrum in Ireland through the past century, with the significant exception of the Northern minority.”
John Hume was true to that Northern minority throughout his life, but his armoured intellect was essential to his remarkable public service. Yes, he had a big heart, but his brain supervised it. We should honour him by not sentimentalizing him.
Brendan O’Leary is the author of A Treatise on Northern Ireland.