DUBLIN — The smiles and handshakes among leaders from the two parts of Ireland attending a meeting last week in Dublin were arguably the legacy of the late Nobel peace laureate John Hume, who died early on Monday.
Shortly after Hume’s death was announced, he was remembered by Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Micheál Martin as “one of the towering figures of Irish public life of the last century.”
Martin last week hosted leaders of Northern Ireland’s regional administration at a meeting of the North South Ministerial Council, a body set up in the wake of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, a peace deal which Hume helped negotiate.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday that “without John Hume there would have been no Belfast or Good Friday Agreement,” referring to the 1998 deal, which was also endorsed by the European Union and the United States.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the continent “has lost a great champion for peace.”
Former British prime minister Tony Blair, who negotiated the 1998 agreement with Hume and others, recalled “a political titan” whose contribution to peace in Northern Ireland was “epic.”
That contribution saw Hume share the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize with David Trimble, then the head of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), after the two men forged a partnership that crossed Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide.
Hume’s Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) campaigned for the unification of the north with rest of Ireland, while the UUP sought to keep the region under British rule.
Speaking on RTÉ, Ireland’s public broadcaster, Trimble – who was the first head of the regional administration set up in Belfast after the 1998 agreement – said that “from the outset of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, he [Hume] was opposed to violence.”
Hume rose to prominence in the late 1960s as civil rights protests in Northern Ireland were met with police violence. Paramilitaries from both sides in Northern Ireland soon entered the fray, as did tens of thousands of British soldiers.
As the region descended into what became decades of chaos and bloodshed, Hume remained a consistent advocate for peace and dialogue.
During his long political career, Hume represented the Foyle constituency, centered on Northern Ireland’s second city of Derry. He was a parliamentarian in Westminster from 1983 to 2005 and a member of the European Parliament from 1979 to 2004.
From the mid-1980s Hume played a key role in then-secret negotiations aimed at persuading the Irish Republic Army (IRA) to consider renouncing violence.
Gerry Adams, the former leader of Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political wing, said on Monday that Hume’s decision to meet him in 1986 was “one of the pivotal moments in Irish history.”
In 2010 Hume topped a public poll conducted by RTÉ to find “the greatest figure in Ireland’s history,” beating luminaries such as independence hero Michael Collins, musicians Bono and Phil Lynott, as well as writers such as James Joyce and Hume’s fellow Derryman Séamus Heaney, the 1995 Nobel literature laureate.
In a statement, Hume’s family said the late leader, who had been in a nursing home for several years, “was a husband, a father, a grandfather, a great grandfather and a brother” whose death “will be deeply felt by all his extended family.”
Hume’s death came a little over six months after that of Séamus Mallon, the long-time deputy leader of the SDLP.
While Northern Ireland has remained largely peaceful since 1998, political tensions remain. The Dublin meeting of the north-south council was the first in over three years, after a hiatus caused by the suspension of Northern Ireland’s regional administration over disagreements between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party.
The years following the 1998 peace deal saw Hume’s SDLP and Trimble’s UUP ousted by Sinn Féin and the DUP as the region;s biggest parties.Show