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Northern Ireland - Politics

Nobel Laureate John Hume, architect of peace in Northern Ireland dies aged 83

Ireland's Social Democratic and Labour Party leader John Hume pauses for a moment before his party's annual conference in Newcastle, County Down, November 18, 2000. Hume called on the IRA to take steps to re-engage with the International Decommissioning Commission.
Ireland's Social Democratic and Labour Party leader John Hume pauses for a moment before his party's annual conference in Newcastle, County Down, November 18, 2000. Hume called on the IRA to take steps to re-engage with the International Decommissioning Commission. REUTERS - Paul McErlane
Text by: David Coffey with RFI
6 min

John Hume, who died on Monday, had campaigned tirelessly for civil rights and peace in Northern Ireland, earning a joint Nobel prize for his efforts to end three decades of sectarian conflict there.

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After initial aspirations to the priesthood, Hume devoted his life to politics and became a rare moderate voice during the violence over British control of Northern Ireland known as 'The Troubles'. 

As leader of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), he steadfastly sought -- and eventually achieved -- a non-violent path to reconciliation as the conflict killed almost 3,600 over more than three decades. 

Upon accepting the 1998 Nobe Peace Prize, which he shared with David Trimble of the pro-British Ulster Unionist Party, he said "Too many lives have already been lost in Ireland in the pursuit of political goals.

"Bloodshed for political change prevents the only change that truly matter: in the human heart".

SDLP's John Hume (R) and Seamus Mallon talk to reporters at Weston Park in Staffordshire on July 13, 2001.  Britain and Ireland reconvened last-gasp Northern Ireland peace talks on Friday after more than 100 police officers were hurt as Catholic rioters went on the rampage in the province overnight/File Photo
SDLP's John Hume (R) and Seamus Mallon talk to reporters at Weston Park in Staffordshire on July 13, 2001. Britain and Ireland reconvened last-gasp Northern Ireland peace talks on Friday after more than 100 police officers were hurt as Catholic rioters went on the rampage in the province overnight/File Photo © Reuters

As the peace process progressed in the 1990s, Hume played a key role securing international involvement in brokering a deal while also persuading the Irish Republican Army (IRA) paramilitary group to put down its weapons.

His efforts were rewarded when Belfast, Dublin and London signed the landmark 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which saw devolved government return to the 6 counties of Ulster under British rule.

"Right from outset of the Troubles, John was urging people to seek their objectives peacefully and was constantly critical of those who did not realise the importance of peace," Trimble said following his death.

Hume had been largely out of the public spotlight since resigning as leader of the SDLP in 2001, citing ill health. 

In his later years he struggled with dementia and had been cared for in a nursing home.

Early life

Hume was born in Derry* in 1937, a city in Northern Ireland bordering the Republic of Ireland.

As a young man, he studied at Ireland's Catholic seminary St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, with initial plans to become a priest. 

Instead, he graduated with a degree in history and French and returned to Derry to teach in 1965.

At the time, the city was riven by conflict between the largely Catholic nationalist community who wanted to join with Ireland and pro-British Protestant unionists.

Hume soon found work in local politics as well the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.

In 1968, "The Troubles" began when a Derry civil rights protest about housing and voting rights was met with police violence.

One year later, the British Army arrived in the city to preserve order, beginning a 38-year operation which saw them become the targets and perpetrators of some of the conflict's worst violence.

That same year, Hume was elected to Northern Ireland's parliament as an independent lawmaker, becoming a founding member of the SDLP in 1970.

The fight for equal rights and peace on the Island of Ireland                

Hume went on to serve in the Northern Ireland assembly and in 1979 both became leader of the SDLP and a member of the European Parliament, seeking a solution to the plight of the province from outside institutions.

Election to the UK parliament in Westminster followed in 1983 and he worked to engage US politicians with the peace process -- including Ted Kennedy and later president Bill Clinton, who became heavily involved.

Whilst courting attention overseas, Hume continued to work locally, including talking to Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA.

He negotiated a four-year ceasefire with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, which set the groundwork for the 1998 peace deal that saw British troops leave Northern Ireland and allows for a referendum on unity to be held in certain circumstances. 

Former Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader and MP for Foyle, John Hume, sits with a drink after announcing at a news conference in Belfast, that he will not be standing again for the European Parliament, February 4, 2004.
Former Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader and MP for Foyle, John Hume, sits with a drink after announcing at a news conference in Belfast, that he will not be standing again for the European Parliament, February 4, 2004. REUTERS - Paul McErlane

"What you see with the life of John Hume is he was committed to peace," said University of East London criminology lecturer John Morrison.

"He sacrificed so much of his life to try and achieve this."

In his lifetime, John Hume also received the Gandhi Peace Prize and the Martin Luther King Award, becoming the only recipient of all three major peace awards.

*Derry has been officially referenced as Londonderry by the British Crown since the early 17th century, but the names Derry/Londonderry are now deemed interchangeable.

   

                  

   

 

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