Written by Aidan Christie.
On 7 June 2022, the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, and the Irish Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, unveiled a bust of John Hume in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. One of several funded by the Irish government, the bust aims to commemorate Hume, who was a Member of the European Parliament for 25 years – from 1979 to 2004. More than anything else, he is remembered for his leading contribution to ending the ‘Troubles’ in his native Northern Ireland, where he argued continually against violence and for dialogue among all parties to resolve the conflict and find a way to cooperate. He thus made a huge contribution to the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement that paved the way for power-sharing between the two main communities in Northern Ireland.
A publication drawing on the European Parliament’s archives presents many of the speeches made by John Hume in the Parliament’s plenary sessions.
The speeches of Micheál Martin and Roberta Metsola, along with a lecture on John Hume given by Chris Patten, former European Commissioner, before the unveiling, are reproduced in an EPRS briefing.
Throughout his life, John Hume (1937-2020) sought to improve the circumstances of the people of Northern Ireland, beginning in his home city of Derry (Londonderry to its unionist residents). Born just a decade and a half after partition, and in a city whose hinterland had been divided by the border, he naturally wished for the unification of Ireland. But he saw that that could not be achieved without realistic plans, nor without a partnership between the two major communities in Northern Ireland, unionist and nationalist.
While working as a school-teacher, in the belief that they could themselves better their lot, he drove forward a wide range of actions to improve the economic circumstances of his community – which was far from the priority of the unionist government in Belfast. A nationalist community that was increasingly vocal in calling for fairer treatment brought him a leading role in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, before he made the switch to elected office in the Northern Ireland Parliament. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) that he co-founded was part of a short-lived power-sharing government in 1974, but it was to be a false dawn, followed by direct rule from London for more than two decades.
With killings a part of everyday life in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, John Hume argued incessantly that violence was not the means to bring about the unification of Ireland, but rather that understanding and respecting each other’s differences was the key to finding peace. He worked continuously to bring together the different parties and governments, all of which needed to be involved to resolve the conflict, as shown by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. In that, he was inspired by the model of post-war European integration. His own experience as a Member of the European Parliament for 25 years (1979-2004) confirmed that a more collaborative approach to addressing differences could pay off. The design of the structures in the Good Friday Agreement owes much to his European experience, but it is thanks to his perseverance – in the face of considerable risks to both him and his family – in persuading those wedded to violence that there was a peaceful solution, that those institutions became reality.
Read the complete briefing on ‘John Hume: Northern Ireland’s peace-maker and committed European‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.