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
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
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. …