John Hume in 2008

I went in to my local bookshop, in Dun Laoghaire, and asked if they had a book on the life of John Hume. It was two days after his sad death.  This did not cause the senior staff member a pained expression, but he did look troubled and said that it might be two months or more before they had such a book on their shelves.  This seemed, at best, a poor response to the good qualities of John Hume.

Here was a man who gave his living lifetime, and then his own health, and then his life itself, to beliefs from which he never swerved.  The world recorded this, and gave him the Nobel Peace Prize.  Those who stood with him, believed what he believed, followed the advice he gave them and felt sure that what he stood for was their way forward, too.

No one was better-placed to exercise their unwritten mandate of leadership and partnership than Seamus Mallon, who described Hume in his book, A Shared Home Place, as “a remarkable genius.”

Nearer to hand today are the comments of journalists, most notably the unsigned piece in Phoenix on the rivalry between the two major figures who led the S.D.L.P.  They were John Hume and Seamus Mallon.  One journalist friend, who shall be nameless, spoke highly of Seamus Mallon.  “A truly great man, a republican through and through but utterly decent, honourable and brave.”  He paused for a moment or two, then he added: “His greatest achievement was in recognising that Hume was even greater than he was.”

It must have been difficult for the two men to contemplate setting their truthful and unswerving political integrity beside others who had taken the road of violence.  So much time had been lost or wasted, so great a gulf had been manufactured out of violence and death.  But it does not take more than a whiff of truth to realise that this was the only way forward, the bar had to be crossed, the arguments laid before a different breed of men, in a firm and truthful manner and in order to change them.  When it boiled down to the moment of action, John Hume was able to undertake this task and to give it everything he had in his heart.

I knew only slightly the two Northern politicians.  I knew far better the men they had to satisfy.  I worked for both of them, both for Garret FitzGerald and Charles Haughey.  I wrote Haughey’s speeches, interpreted works of art for him, and in time published outrageous stories of what kind of man he was.  It taught me much and made me understand the difficult and indeed seemingly endless road the two sides had to travel, John and Seamus, Charlie and Garret.

Both men were flawed.  Garret died at peace when the end came, but he laboured in the dismal field of European politics, knowing less than the people he was dealing with and probably less than his own advisers.  My final words on Charles Haughey came on the final page of my third “Life” of him: “a fearsome reputation when he had achieved power, and the bizarre notes of disgrace and tragedy that eventually tarnished his reputation for ever.”

The willingness to take second place in party authority is a must, says the writer in Phoenix.  But he ignores the fact that Seamus Mallon must have been biting his tongue.  Be that as it may, the circumstances of landing such a big fish as Gerry Adams – still a bone of contention in numerous circles – is only part of the global achievement.

But it is a big part.  Many people look on seeing, not just Gerry Adams moving on, but a new generation moving up to replace them.

Death has recently taken both S.D.L.P. “leaders” – I use a mixture – deliberate – with feelings of sadness and compassion for both men.  And though it is only a small part of the inundation of words, it goes more than any other to the heart of the matter.

From The Sunday Times comes another gloomy revue, this time one that has fallen anyway in John Hume’s death.  It is to the effect that he lost his influence over the peace process as soon as he brought Gerry Adams on board.  Is it now a case that the influence of Adams and Martin McGuinness will prevail, or is it also now passing, as the baton is handed to another generation, less committed to the tentative peace?  Must we focus our fears on another generation navigating this quagmire?

The author of the article, in The Sunday Times, is Newton Emerson.  He talks of the legacy of countless lives saved by John Hume.   Many will endorse that reality.


Bruce Arnold (b. 1936)  journalist and author living in Ireland since 1957, has worked for the main Irish newspapers based in Dublin – The Irish TimesThe Irish Press and the Sunday Independent. He also acted as Dublin correspondent of The Guardian. He has written extensively on politics in Ireland, including literary criticism, art and politics.