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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.


[ image: Nobel Peace Laureate in Oslo]
Nobel Peace Laureate in Oslo
But the Nobel Peace Prize awarded jointly to Mr Hume and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble in 1998 was seen as recognition of that relentless work for reconciliation.

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.

The Search for Peace
He has been one of the driving figures behind many of the significant attempts to resolve the Northern Ireland problem over the past 30 years.

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.


[ image: John Hum'es contacts with Sinn Fein paved the way for the Agreement]
John Hum'es contacts with Sinn Fein paved the way for the Agreement
He has been a relentless opponent of violence whether carried out by the IRA or loyalist paramilitaries.

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.



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In this section

David Trimble: More enemies than friends

John Hume: Midwife to the peace process

Mo Mowlam: London's eternal optimist

Gerry Adams: Between war and peace

Ian Paisley: Ulster's No man

John de Chastelain: Arms and the man

Mallon: Calling a spade a spade

David Ervine: Leaving the past behind