John Hume Left Behind a Peaceful—but Divided—Ireland
The Nobel Peace Laureate helped bring nearly three decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland to an end. But reconciliation between the country’s communities remains unrealized.
John Hume, a Nobel Peace laureate and giant of Irish politics, died on Monday, leaving behind a towering legacy. The longtime leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), Northern Ireland’s largest nationalist party for most of the second half of the 20th century, Hume will best be remembered for his most enduring contribution: peace in Ireland.
Hume was part of a generation of emergent middle-class Catholics who were the first of the country’s pro-Irish nationalist community to enjoy the social benefits that came with the United Kingdom’s post-World War II welfare state. This gave them the material and intellectual resources needed to challenge systemic anti-Catholic discrimination by the governing pro-British unionist administration.
Hume cut his political teeth in the mid-1960s as an early leader of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement, a grassroots campaign dedicated to ending housing, employment, and voter discrimination against Catholics. His home city of Derry was considered the epicenter of unionist misrule. Unemployment was rampant, gerrymandering locked the city’s large Catholic majority completely out of power, and a decision by the Northern Ireland government in 1965 to build a new university in the Protestant-majority town of Coleraine rather than in Derry—Northern Ireland’s second largest city—was for many, including Hume, the spark that lit the fuse.
The Northern Ireland civil rights movement took its inspiration from the African-American civil rights movement taking place in the United States, and like its U.S. counterpart it was committed to advancing its aims through nonviolent civil disobedience. The movement was viciously opposed by Protestant unionist reactionaries, and after the breakdown of public order and the arrival of British troops at the end of the 1960s, Hume and some of his colleagues resolved to enter electoral politics.
The fatal shooting of 14 unarmed protesters by British troops on the streets of Derry in 1972 led directly to the rapid intensification of the paramilitary Provisional Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) armed campaign, forcing Hume to switch focus from social justice to peacebuilding. Sinn Fein, widely considered the political wing of the IRA, gave public support to the armed campaign in sharp contrast to the SDLP’s commitment to nonviolence. Though far smaller than the SDLP throughout the conflict, Sinn Fein enjoyed a substantial degree of support among nationalists.
As a peacemaker, there were few boundaries Hume would not cross, and he was willing to engage his opponents despite the enormous political—and often personal—risks involved. He sat down with the IRA leadership as early as 1986—this, only a few years after it had reportedly considered assassinating him. Those talks proved fruitless, but a short time later he opened a top-secret line of communication to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in what is now considered one of the first significant steps toward peace.
Hume was instrumental in moving the IRA away from its uncompromising view of the conflict and closer to his own, helping to create the political will in both London and Dublin to negotiate with Sinn Fein. He successfully lobbied the British government to state explicitly that the Irish people had a right to national self-determination, a fundamental shift in the British position that helped convince the IRA there was a nonviolent path forward. Most of the provisions contained in the final version of the Good Friday peace agreement originated from Hume’s thinking.
The role he played in bringing an end to the violence is unquestionably his greatest achievement, but the next phase of the peace process—reconciling the two communities—has been left mostly unfulfilled. In many ways, Northern Ireland is more divided now than it was during the conflict.
According to recently published data, 93 percent of students attend schools that are self-segregated along religious lines, and in a recent survey, more than half of respondents described their local residential area as either “mostly Protestant” or “mostly Catholic.” In 2016, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive found that more than 90 percent of social housing was still segregated, a figure that rose to 93 percent in Belfast.
Even more worrying, there are still sharp disagreements over how best to remember the past. Nationalists in particular have called for the establishment of a truth commission to investigate crimes committed during the conflict, modeled on a similar body created in South Africa after the end of apartheid. Some unionists have pushed back, warning that a truth commission would simply be used by nationalists to place all of the blame for the conflict on the British government and its supporters.
Some nationalists have pushed for criminal prosecutions of former British soldiers, though many also argue that prosecuting former IRA members could damage the peace process. This apparent double standard has rankled unionists, who say that if former IRA members are off-limits, former British soldiers should be, too. The debate over who—if anyone—should be prosecuted for conflict-related crimes is still a highly emotive issue.
The most visible displays of the continued division in Northern Ireland are the country’s famous peace walls. Initially built as temporary structures in the 1970s to quell rioting near the dividing lines of nationalist and unionist enclaves, the peace walls were enlarged over the years and became permanent barriers, isolating whole communities from one another. More than half of the peace walls in Northern Ireland today were built after the end of the conflict.
Perhaps most consequentially, the end of large-scale violence has given way to a paralyzing degree of political polarization. After the end of the conflict, the hardline Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) overtook their more moderate counterparts, including Hume’s SDLP, and are now the leading public faces of nationalism and unionism respectively. Both parties hold radical visions for the future, and they seem to regard the power-sharing executive in Belfast—one of the institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement—as an occasionally useful stepping-stone to their real objectives. In the 17 years since the ascendance of Sinn Fein and the DUP, the executive has been out of commission for seven of them.
Brexit has only exacerbated these issues. During the June 2016 referendum, Northern Ireland voted by a slim majority to remain in the European Union, and Sinn Fein used the result to push for unification with the Irish Republic as the only way to guarantee the democratically expressed will of the Northern Irish people. Calls for unity have snowballed since then, in part due to the U.K. government’s underwhelming response to the coronavirus pandemic, sharpening Sinn Fein’s political focus while at the same time causing the DUP to dig in and channel its historic “no surrender” mentality. The uncompromising nature of Northern Ireland’s politics is unlikely to subside while the current conditions exist.
These are the problems that have dogged Northern Ireland since the end of the conflict. Hume helped build the framework that gave meaningful expression to all of Northern Ireland’s communities, but the ultimate reconciliation of nationalists and unionists remains elusive. That task will be left to a future generation of peacemakers.