Amid this fevered and fearsome summer, a steadfast soul slipped quietly into eternity, while leaving a legacy that will resound for generations.
John Hume, a Nobel laureate and one of the architects of the Northern Ireland peace process, died Aug. 3 at a nursing home in his native Derry. The longtime politician, dubbed an “apostle of nonviolence” by the Washington Post, had succumbed to dementia and illness.
Although his memories were clouded in his final years, history will preserve the record of his heroism, which he demonstrated in ways most ordinary and yet of late most uncommon: by listening to others with respect, by speaking the truth and by remaining fixed in his vision for concord.
“If dad were here today in the fullness of his health, witnessing the current tensions in the world, he wouldn’t waste the opportunity to say a few words himself,” said his son, John Hume Jr., addressing mourners at his father’s funeral. “He’d talk about our common humanity, the need to respect diversity and difference, to protect and deepen democracy, to value education and to place non-violence at the core of everything.”
For Hume, that commitment wasn’t a theoretical one, but rather — and quite literally — a matter of life and death. He strode resolutely into the raging current that was several hundred years of bitter Irish-English division, and built a bridge that allowed both sides to cross, at least in part, to more level footing.
A onetime teacher with a calm but firm voice, Hume entered public life during what in many respects was a global civil rights movement in the late 1960s. From Prague to Paris and Montgomery to Memphis, people gathered in the streets to protest discrimination and injustice — much as they’re doing today.
Hume worked to heal one of the bitterest wounds in Irish history: the Troubles, three decades of anguish from 1968 to 1998 in which Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists clashed over whether Northern Ireland should remain under British control or become one with the Republic of Ireland.
Bombings, brutality and heartbreak characterized the Troubles, which saw some 3,500 dead and tens of thousands injured. “Peace walls” of barbed wire and steel were erected to separate the factions. One of the period’s worst days, Jan. 30, 1972, came to be known as Bloody Sunday, when British troops fired on largely Catholic civilians marching against the policy of internment, or detention without trial. Thirteen unarmed men and youth (six of them only 17 years old) were killed that day; 41-year-old Bernard McGuigan was gunned down while waving a white handkerchief and shouting “Don’t shoot” as he ran to aid a slain protestor. A fourteenth victim later died of his injuries.
Hume was not at that demonstration, since he feared a repeat of the tear gassing and rubber bullets at the Magilligan Strand protest a week earlier. But he visited the victims’ families, offered to pay for their funerals and, according to John Kelly, brother of Bloody Sunday victim Michael Kelly, Hume “saved hundreds and hundreds and maybe thousands of lives.”
“If it wasn’t for him, so many other people would have gone to their graves like our Michael,” said Kelly in a recent interview with Irish media.
Kelly, along with Irish and world leaders, credited Hume’s determination to create dialogue among all parties — a slow and often frustrating process that eventually led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which saw the two sides endorse a devolved government in Northern Ireland.
The historic accord didn’t end the violence; the Real Irish Republican Army retaliated a few months later with a car bomb that killed 29 in Omagh. Hume himself withstood enormous criticism for his efforts to reconcile enemies, and his legacy will not go unchallenged by those for whom war and division are preferable to discussion and consensus.
Yet he persisted against all odds, and — as Father Paul Farren, the homilist at Hume’s funeral, said — Hume “made peace visible for others.”
And he did so because he understood profound truths from which we turn at our peril. Asked to respond to criticism of his talks with then Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, Hume said, “I want to do everything in my power to bring … violence and killing to an end. And if I can do it by direct dialogue, it is my duty to do it.”
At this moment of intense tribalism, Hume calls us to look beyond ballot boxes, barbs and bullets, and to discern something far more eternal — because, as he said, “our humanity transcends our identity.”
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