Tuesday, March 16, 1999 Published at 15:09 GMT
John Hume: Midwife to the peace process
John Hume: Prepared to talk to anyone in the cause of peace
By BBC News Online's Gary Duffy
The abiding characteristic of John Hume's political career has been a willingness to talk to anyone if he felt it advanced the cause of peace.
It has not won him universal admiration - especially when it involved negotiations with Sinn Fein in the absence of an IRA ceasefire.
A former teacher, Mr Hume first came to prominence through the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, when Catholics demanded substantial changes to the way Northern Ireland was run.
He helped to found the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party in 1970, later taking over as its leader from Gerry Fitt in 1979. He became a Member of the European Parliament in the same year.
Figure of authority
It is a role that, despite the relatively minor standing of his party, has won him an impressive amount of influence in Dublin, London, Brussels and Washington.
Like Ian Paisley, he is one of the most enduring figures on the Northern Ireland political stage.
Mr Hume was a member of the power-sharing executive set up after the Sunningdale Agreement in December 1973 and helped to shape the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which for the first time gave Dublin a limited say in the affairs of Northern Ireland.
Opened talks with republicans
In 1988, Mr Hume began a series of contacts with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, which were to prove crucial in developing the current process.
Further talks became public in 1993 amid considerable controversy and hostility, especially from unionists. In defiant mood, Mr Hume declared he did not care "two balls of roasted snow" about all the criticism he faced.
But the SDLP leader's strategy was to try to persuade Sinn Fein that the problem in Ireland was not so much the British presence, but the divisions between the people of Ireland, unionist and nationalist.
Around the same time contact between the UK and Irish governments led to the Downing Street Declaration, followed by the first IRA ceasefire in 1994.
Support for David Trimble
Mr Hume strongly supported the view that any talks about the future of Northern Ireland should be as inclusive as possible, and when a deal was agreed on Good Friday this year, the participants included Sinn Fein as well as political representatives of the Protestant paramilitaries.
He went on to campaign vigorously for a Yes vote in the referendum on the agreement, symbolically sharing a stage with David Trimble and Bono of U2 in an effort to swing the unionist vote.
His efforts are known to have taken a toll on his health and Mr Hume stood aside to let fellow SDLP member Seamus Mallon assume the Deputy First Minister's role in the new Northern Ireland Assembly.
His stubborn determination in pursuing the path of peace and the conviction that he was right did not win him many friends among unionist politicians.
But across the community in Northern Ireland there have been many more prepared to accept that the SDLP leader had taken a risk to try to end the violence. The Good Friday Agreement, they would argue, more than justified his efforts.