Ireland's `Statesman of the Troubles'. John Hume Redefines Northern Conflict and Sets Forth Possible Solutions. INTERVIEW: IRISH POLITICAL LEADER

By T. Patrick Hill, | The Christian Science Monitor, April 27, 1989 | Go to article overview

Ireland's `Statesman of the Troubles'. John Hume Redefines Northern Conflict and Sets Forth Possible Solutions. INTERVIEW: IRISH POLITICAL LEADER


T. Patrick Hill,, The Christian Science Monitor


JOHN HUME has an unshaken belief in the power of reasonableness.

To him, the resolution of conflict in Northern Ireland will come only by the acceptance of religious diversity - and trustful negotiations over how to "share the island."

As a founder of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Mr. Hume projects a distinct moral vision unusual in a country torn by sectarian prejudice. Yet his view is one that has earned him grudging recognition from unionists, who favor the continued constitutional link with Britain, as well as respect from nationalists, who want some form of Irish unity.

Hume recalls that the United States Constitution was fashioned in good measure by Irish Presbyterians. They had been driven out of Ireland by religious bigotry and did not want that to happen again. So they helped draft a Constitution, the essence of which is the acceptance of diversity. "And that's my basic philosophy," Hume insisted. "The essence of unity is the acceptance of diversity," he said in a recent interview in London.

It is also the fundamental insight tragically missing in Northern Ireland, Hume believes, and one that cannot be given by outsiders, including the British. The Irish must learn it for themselves, he said.

The difference between Hume and other political leaders in the North is most evident in their definitions of the central problem. Ken Maginnis, a unionist member of Parliament, believes the overriding issue is violence, which needs to be addressed by military measures and selective internment. But Hume, appalled as he is by the North's incessant bloodshed, sees the violence as a symptom of a deeper friction.

"It's a problem of a conflict of relationships which hasn't been resolved," he explained, referring to relations between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and relations between Britain and Ireland. "But the central relationship is between Protestants and the rest of Ireland, because that's the one that has never been faced up to."

Hume prefers to speak of his political roots as his personal roots. He was born in Derry in 1937. The oldest of seven children, he cannot forget that his father, a Catholic, was unemployed for 20 years and had to struggle even to provide a two-bedroom house. At that time, Derry was a gerrymandered town where, despite a Catholic majority, unionists (Protestants) controlled jobs and housing.

But by his own reckoning, Hume was fortunate. The year he turned 11 was the first year of a state-mandated IQ test. Any child that passed this examination was entitled to free education in preparation for university entrance. It was the break Hume needed to avoid repeating his father's experience.

"I was able to pass that exam, and went on from there right through university," he said. This led to his major role in shaping the history of modern Ireland as a member of the British Parliament at Westminster and the European Parliament in Strasbourg - and to becoming what Barry White, Hume's biographer, calls a "statesman of the Troubles."

After university, Hume returned to Derry in 1960. Conditions had not changed, but attitudes had. Self-help was the order of the day, and he accepted it eagerly. With four others and 5, Hume founded a credit union among the people of the Bogside, a Catholic ghetto. "And that wiped out the loan sharks."

Today, the union has 12,000 members with 5 million ($8.5 million) in assets. Hume also helped to establish a housing association to build homes for Catholics. But when local government denied permission, "We took to the streets in a civil rights movement." From there, it was just a matter of time before he became deeply involved in politics. …

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