Mise agus John serenading Irish America at the White House St. Patrick's Day event in March 1995
The Thursday evening before last I was part of a panel in the Helix Theatre at Dublin City University (DCU) to discuss the contribution of John Hume to the work of civil rights and peace. There were around 200 people present. We watched Maurice Fitzpatrick's film ‘John Hume in America’. Afterward Brid Rodgers, a former Deputy Leader of the SDLP; Liz O Donnell, a former Minister of State at the Dept. of Foreign Affairs; Maurice Fitzpatrick; and I, joinedJohn Doyle, the Executive Dean of DCU's Faculty of Humanities and Social Science, to discuss the film.
Fitzpatrick’s film recalls John Hume’s connections on Capitol Hill and his efforts to encourage US governments to engage positively in efforts to support civil rights in the North. Through archive footage and interviews with Presidents Clinton, Carter, Bruce Morrison, Richie Neal and others it records John’s frequent visits to Washington and the impact on US policy of his engagements with Teddy Kennedy, Tip O’Neill and others.
The film also covers the private conversations John and I held over many years, and our efforts, through ‘Hume-Adams’, to put in place a process of inclusive dialogue that would create a peace process and end the conflict. While it records the hysterical political reaction in the South to our conversations, and especially within elements of the southern media establishment, in my opinion it skips over this full frontal, sustained personal and venomous attack on John. They were difficult years.
Elements within the SDLP leadership were opposed to what John was trying to do. The Irish and British governments preferred to stick with the old strategy of refusing to talk to Sinn Féin. But John and I stuck with it, and with the help of the Fr. Alec Reid, Fr. Des and others, cessations were realised, negotiations succeeded, and in 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was achieved and endorsed in referendum North and South.
In one of my contributions at the Helix I outlined the efforts – stretching over years to get talks – dialogue – started and how after setbacks, prevarications and refusals, Fr Alec got a prompt and positive response from John to a request to speak to me.
I put the question to the panel and the audience – ‘what if John had said No? What if he had taken the line of the other parties and governments and the Church leaderships?’
That remains a pertinent question. Success has many parents. Many good people played positive roles in developing the peace process but to John’s great credit he did the right thing and stuck with it. He engaged in dialogue. He was ably assisted and supported by his wife Pat. John and I met often in his home in Derry or Donegal. Pat was always welcoming and helpful and positive. I believe she was probably his closest and best adviser. Of course, John and I disagreed on many issues but we focussed on the need to develop an alternative way to achieve political objectives that would make armed struggle redundant.
That was our achievement. With the input of then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, friends in Irish America and others, this became a peace package. The IRA embraced it. That is to its credit and a testimony to the vision and intelligence of the vast majority of its volunteers and supporters.
Much has been written about how John sacrificed the SDLP. This is untrue. The SDLP should have done much better than it did. But a house divided against itself cannot stand. Remember David Trimble and Seamus Mallon led the first Executive. The SDLPs failure to make the most of that potential does not rest with John Hume. And in fairness David Trimble and Seamus Mallon were hardly the Chuckle Brothers. Neither should Sinn Féin be criticised for being more successful than the SDLP. It is to our credit that we were more united, efficient and in tune with the electorate.
Fifty years after Duke Street in Derry there have been huge changes across this island. With more to come. The struggle goes on. The negative elements which dominated political unionism then and which resisted modest civil rights reform continue to lead political unionism today. So, there is as much, if not more need, for a broad based mass movement for rights across Ireland at this time, as there was then.
Clearly there is a peaceful way – a way through dialogue, activism and campaigning to achieve these. Thank you John Hume and everyone else involved, including Pat Hume, for making this possible. Today there is an urgent need for an island wide peaceful uprising. A modern version of the civil rights campaign. Let’s create this. Now.
Martin McAleese, Mise, Maurice Fitzpatrick, Brid Rodgers, Liz O'Donnell, John Doylen DCU, and Brian MCraith, President DCU