21 April, 2024


John Hume: A Shrewd, Calculating Politician 

By Chamindra Weerawardhana –

Dr. Chamindra Weerawardhana

John Hume has passed away at the age of 83. 

Hume is credited for making major innovations in the peace process of the north of Ireland. His contributions are considered as especially vital, in terms of developing a bridge of dialogue with the Irish Republican leadership on the imperatives of a durable peaceful settlement, and also in the area of strengthening links with the international partners of the peace process. 

Hume’s role in the politics of Ulster became that of a victor, in the aftermath of the signing of the 1998 Agreement, and the tremendous hype that the Agreement garnered in the international sphere. His position as a constitutional nationalist who stood for peace took him all the way to Oslo, as a recipient of no less a laurel than the Nobel peace prize. 

If the outpouring of obituaries and tributes in the last few days is anything to go by, it is very clear how Hume has consolidated his legacy as the peacemaking pinnacle of Ulster. To say that people are full of praise is a euphemism. The serving British Prime Minister, who represents a reactionary political discourse when it comes to fundamental rights, the healthcare system, and almost all aspects of intersectional justice, tweeted about the ‘long-lasting impact he [Hume] had on the world. 

Ulster Peace Process: No Beacon

Hume, with his 1998 Nobel peace award [©The Irish Examiner]

Inadvertently perhaps, the prime minister’s tweet directs at a reality that this writer, someone with her roots in a deeply divided place in the global South who spent years immersing herself in Ulster’s politics of peacemaking, and indeed many others, find beyond problematic – the inclination to view the Ulster peace process as a beacon that sets a precedent, if not an example, to the rest of the world. Indeed, in the years and decades that have followed the 1998 Agreement, many politicians in Ulster have been marketing themselves as ‘experts’ in peacebuilding and conflict management. Many of them have been working internationally has high-paid expert-consultants on all things conflict resolution, even providing their ‘expertise’ to governments in non-western contexts, facing socio-political, economic, cultural and many other realities that are extremely far-removed from the case of Ulster. Some politicians, including people who were in political camps that were opposed to the peace process [especially those who upheld such opposition until the 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement], are marketing themselves as tremendous advocates of peacebuilding, that they at times get off on the proverbial wrong foot, endorsing governments and leaders with dubious human rights records [one is also reminded of the truism ‘birds of a feather flock together, but that is a discussion for another day…]. 

The ’Peace’ Business

Certain individuals in the ‘high politics of Northern Ireland’ have created research centres on democracy and peacebuilding, marketing themselves as absolute experts. Consultants who were involved in the politics of Ulster as middlemen [I emphasise the word ‘men’ here, meaning cis able-bodied and business-savvy men], have also developed multi-million-pound consultancy businesses on the back of this supposed beacon of a peace process. 

Politicking and Marketing

The late Mr Hume was an architect of a peace process that earned him [and many others, as noted above], unprecedented credit. The politics of peacebuilding in Ulster is a sphere replete with credit-claiming male egos, arrogant grandstanding on claiming ownership of the peace process, and an inherent inclination to highlight how one, or one’s camp, were the absolute saviours of the peace process. The post-1998 politics of Ulster has been a high-profile marketing campaign, with the peace process being marketed as a beacon, as an example that the rest of the world ought to ‘learn’ from. 

Moderate Voices: Shunned? 

Many analysts, including this writer, have repeatedly highlighted the monumental flaws and futilities of such peace-grandstanding. The 1998 agreement was an agreement to disagree, a political arrangement based on consociational statecraft of elite power-sharing. It led to the irreversible rise of the most extreme elements in the sectarian divide to the helm of political power, at the expense of the moderate voices on either side. It built systems and institutions that are essentially broken [ask any youth in a highly policed Irish Republican neighbourhood if you don’t believe a ‘blow-in’ brown woman], deeply biased towards the most marginalised segments of society. It created a situation in which every political hue has to walk on very thin ice – making Ulster a body-politic whose lifeline depends on the ventilator of consociational power-sharing. If significant transformative progress has been achieved in terms of civil liberties [e.g. civil partnerships for gay and lesbian people, equal marriage and reproductive rights – specially abortion rights], these steps have been taken by Westminster, when the 1998 Agreement’s power-sharing structure has been in a limbo. 

Moderate politicians in deeply divided societies, especially in the global South, therefore ought to be very wary of the peace process in Ulster. It is also very much a white men’s peace process, which received unconditional and genuine support from Brussels and Washington DC. Many countries in the global South can only dream of international support of equal measure. 

The Peacebuilding Joy Ride 

Very few politicians in Ulster  have shown any measure of humility to see the truth in these critical perspectives. Instead, many of them have been cruising on a peacebuilding joy ride since 1998, hanging out in tropical islands and Finnish forests, mostly trying to address problems they are clueless about. 

Hume, for his part, was staunchly committed to highlighting his role in the peace process as that of a pioneer. This writer has witnessed, at more than one public occasion over the last 13 years, how Hume would shut down, with a classic display of male arrogance, anyone [especially youth] who would raise critical perspectives on his role in the Ulster peace process. 

If one observes Hume’s ‘political’ career carefully, it is one that was built on a middle ground intended at appealing to all segments of the deeply divided polity. Be it the British establishment, the Irish government, Irish Republicans, or unionists, they could all talk to Hume. Hume, for his part, could talk to them. He did not position himself in a place of antagonism, as opposed to Irish Republican leaders. Many in Ulster would still recall the debacle over the Clinton administration granting a US entry visa to a Mr Gerald Adams. This visa caused absolute outrage in Britain, right up to the high corridors of 10 Downing Street, during the John Major premiership. Hume would have had no such concerns. He was the constitutional nationalist committed to a negotiated settlement who was always welcome in Washington DC, Brussels, and for that matter anywhere else. 

Legacy: Loved by the British

Hume’s biggest admirers were not the Irish nationalist people of Ulster, or the Irish nationalist adepts of constitutional nationalism, the Irish elite on the republic side, or the government in Dublin. His foremost admirers were in fact….the British authorities. They loved him so much that when Hume visited Sri Lanka to ‘advice’ Colombo on the Lankan peace process, the top brass of British diplomacy in their former colony sought to take ownership of the visit, to the extent that Hume, at a gathering of high politics, had to take out his Irish passport and say to Colombo’s top British diplomat, “Madam, I have travelled here on an Irish passport!” Unlike undesirables such as the late Pat Finucane, or Bobby Sands, or, for that matter, diplomat Roger Casement [this list could go on till the end of time, long as lilies bloom!], Hume was excellent marketing material for the British. 

The British establishment’s love of Hume is a great example of how he crafted his political path. Hume was a true politician, who could guess, predict, take stock of, and act upon the emergent political ‘pulse’ and trends of the day. It is precisely this – his acumen as a calculated, shrewd and quintessential politician, that Hume primarily deserves credit. If there were a Nobel prize, or any other high honour, for being an adroit politico, with his eye straight on the path for political advantage, that is the prize Hume unconditionally deserves. 

Hume: inheritor of a strong body of work on rights, coexistence and conciliation?

The Rev. Albert H. McElroy [1915-1975], a non-subscribing Presbyterian minister and founder of the Ulster Liberal Party. Despite considerable political odds, he bravely stood for the centre-ground of Ulster politics throughout his years of political advocacy.

It is also worth reflecting on another aspect of the politics of Ulster that few are inclined to talk about. By the time the likes of Hume, David Trimble or for that matter, John Alderdice, entered politics and made their way to power, they were the lucky ones – because by then, there were existing precedents – high quality ones at that – of advocating for inter-communal coexistence in Ulster from a perspective of the middle ground. The late Sheelagh Murnaghan MP [1924-1993], the first female barrister of the Belfast bar, the late Rev. Albert H. McElroy, the founder and leader of the Ulster Liberals, and politicians of the left, especially the towering figures of the old Northern Ireland Labour Party [NILP], had left a tremendous body of work, which could serve as a solid foundation when advocating for a durable negotiated settlement to Ulster’s sectarian woes. Such moderate voices existed not only at the centre and left of the ‘middle-ground’ of politics, but also on the sides green and orange.

Sheelagh Murnaghan, MP at the Stormont House of Commons from 1961 to 1969, deployed her legal expertise to draft a comprehensive human rights bill for Northern Ireland, which she tabled at the Stormont House of Commons at some four different occasions, to be categorically shunned and defeated by the then unionist-majority government of the province.

A closer look at the Stormont Hansard of the 1960s would demonstrate how the likes of the late Eddie McAteer MP, the leader of the Nationalist Party, and unionist politicians such as Anne Dickson MP, Bessie McConachie MP, and many others sought to actively advocate for politics of the middle ground. The likes of Hume built on the basis of that solid foundation. This writer’s research has revealed how, at an early stage of his political career, Hume drew a lot from Sheelagh Murnaghan’s body of work, especially in advocating for human rights in the context of Northern Ireland. Documents, insight and wisdom collected from Murnaghan were never acknowledged. The story also goes that in subsequent years, when Hume was the rising star in politics and Murnaghan in her twilight years, he would not even acknowledge her, even if they bumped in face to face. 

Political Memory: A Man’s World? 

The ongoing adulations of Hume are a fine example of how men in politics are remembered, revered, and near-canonised. His is a history that he [Hume] carved out for himself. However, if things were to be explored in a ‘herstorical’ perspective, the picture, to say the very least, would be quite different. 

May Hume’s soul rest in peace. 

*Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana is an educator, political analyst, rights activist and public speaker. She is the author of Decolonising Peacebuilding: Managing Conflict from Northern Ireland to Sri Lanka and Beyond, many peer-reviewed articles and contributions to the press. 

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Latest comments

  • 3

    I get the impression that the writer is going a out of her way to attack Hume. The main offence seems his gender.
    Hume is recognized for a specific role in a process that delivered peace, not quite perfect but what was best possible under the circumstances and given the players.
    He certainly made no claims to inventing anything, and owes no acknowledgment of intellectual property. The credit given to him is for doing something. If anyone should regret credit going to him rather than him/her, it could be a republican leader who worked hard for peace. That was a tough job. But republicans, as a whole, have been most generous.
    I cannot see the purpose of this piece but to tar not just Hume but also others whom the writer holds a grudge against.

  • 1

    Dr Chamindra,

    I do not want to assign motives!

    Your article is very impressive.

    However, Good Friday Agreement of 1998 had brought at least a semblance of peace to long suffering Northern Ireland.

    It is still holding, thanks to international intervention and the magnanimity of Britain and Irish Republic

    If only Sri Lankan conflict followed the same trajectory, the Tamils in Sri Lanka would have been better off, but it was not to be due to foolishness on the part of the Tamil leaders

  • 2

    He was a great man and I had the privilege to meet him in London in 1973(I think),time when the bomb went off outside the British Parliament. I was working nights in a hotel in Westminster and to cheer him up we sang the songs Those were the days my friend, Irish eyes are smiling and the good old song from US which was Irene good night..That song was sung first by a man in US who was very depressed and on the verge of taking his life.
    about 4 MPs were lodging there and we had a bit of a singsong. He was a good singer.

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