John Arnold: A great Derry man, a visionary Irish man — a voice of reason

In his weekly column John Arnold writes about the legacy left by John Hume
John Arnold: A great Derry man, a visionary Irish man — a voice of reason
John Hume was recognised by leaders from all over the world for his contribution to the peace process in Northern Ireland. 

I MET Garrett Fitzgerald a few times during different Election campaigns. I remember walking with a crowd behind him as he campaigned in Patrick’s Street in Cork city.

He was in Fermoy also on different occasions, especially during the two bye-elections in November, 1979.

I admired him greatly as an honest man. After his death, some writer or another described him as a man ‘without guile or cunning’ and so he was. Cynics might say you need those traits to be a wheeler/dealer/tangler in the political world. Fitzgerald was seen by some as a bit naive in the cut-throat business of electoral politics.

As a conservative myself, I didn’t always see eye to eye with some of Garrett’s liberal leanings. Nevertheless I admired him above all else for his love of country. He could have been a mathematics teacher, an airline executive or an academic researcher but he chose politics to try and make things better for people. That’s a noble call made by some.

Fitzgerald was an honest man and that’s as good a compliment as can be paid to anyone. When he died nine years ago I had no hesitation about going to his lying in State in Dublin’s Mansion House. On that occasion I shook no hand, expressed no sympathy to anyone — no, it was just a gesture of saying ‘Thank You’ to a person who served this country well.

Last Tuesday night when we lit the candle in the window for John Hume I thought of Garrett Fitzgerald and also of Jerry Fitt and Seamus Mallon and Ivan Cooper.

In August, 1970, just 50 years ago, a group of men from differing backgrounds came together in Northern Ireland and founded a new political alliance, the Social, Democratic and Labour Party — the SDLP. Another founder member was Austin Currie, a man I got acquainted with in the early 1990s — he is in fact now the sole survivor from the SDLP’s ‘founding fathers’. The SDLP grew from the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland - it in turn was a response to the sectarian treatment of nationalists in the Six Counties.

For many younger people, ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland is now just something they might hear parents talk about now and then. In a way that’s wonderful and a lasting legacy to men like John Hume.

Nobody claims that all is rosy in the Ulster Garden. Conflict ends but bitterness and ‘legacy issues’ remain and linger for generations. Just look at our situation here in the ‘deep South’. We have just formed a three party Government. For the first time ever the two Civil War Parties’ as they are known, have coalesced.

The Civil War ended in 1923 with Cumann na Gaedheal (later Fine Gael ) the winners — but the ‘final score’ was not forgotten!

It is just stunning then to contemplate that Unionist and Nationalist Parties have served together in a Northern Irish administration with years. It may not be a normal type of Government or Cabinet but the fact that it has happened at all is amazing. That’s John Hume’s legacy and will remain so forever.

As a child growing up in the 1960s, we never heard that much about ‘the North’. I knew that the Unionists —mainly Protestants were in the majority. Then I remember someone telling me, maybe around the mid 1960s, that ‘twas only a matter of time before all that would change.

Catholics were having bigger families and Protestants tended to have fewer offspring. Problem solved, I thought, because in maybe 20 or 30 or 40 years at the outside the Catholics and mainly Nationalist population would be in a majority. A ‘they’ll live happily ever after’ outcome seemed the logical conclusion! If it was only that simple!

Later, I thought I had the perfect solution for the Ulster ‘problem’. Couldn’t all the Unionists who swore allegiance to the Queen simply go back to England, Scotland and Wales from where their ancestors had come centuries before. Leave Ulster entirely to people whose surnames began with either O or Mac and we would have a 32 County United Ireland the next morning. Well, John, wasn’t that a truly ingenious way of sorting out the awful bloody, conflict that had broken out in the six counties of Northern Ireland?

John Hume, a teacher by profession, had a dream like Martin Luther King and the Kennedy family. In the United States the hope and the dream was that Americans of differing backgrounds and skin colour could live side by side without discrimination. Nearly six decades later that American dream is still not fully realised. Of course on this Island we have no Utopia either. John Hume was a realist and knew full well one side trying simply to ‘beat the other’ into submission and subservience could and would never work. He had grown up in a one-party State in the North where the Unionists ruled the roost and well they knew it.

Hume didn’t agree with the armed conflict perpetrated by the IRA but he fully understood why exactly it had come about - people can be cowed and brow-beaten and gerrymandered for so long until one day… John Hume and his SDLP co-founders wanted a party to express the voice of reason. It grew and grew as a major force in Northern Irish politics. Just as the Unionist voice had many ‘dialects’ so did Sinn Fein and the SDLP come to represent the nationalist people. Sinn Fein/IRA had the infamous ‘Ballot Paper in One Hand and the Armalite in the Other’ policy - they were slightly democratic. Hume had no time for violence but realised the huge task was to persuade those who did that another path could exist.

It must have troubled John Hume enormously as he tossed around the idea in his head of getting Sinn Fein and the ‘armed nationalists’ to join talks. He founded a non-violent means party and now he was suggesting the legitimisation of a party that had opposed his SDLP at every hand’s turn. He surely knew full well that bringing Sinn Fein/IRA ‘in from the cold’ and making them equal players could have consequences for his party.

If he achieved a positive result to his peace efforts, Sin, Fein could gain credibility at the expense of his beloved SDLP. That’s what happened.

A lesser figure on seeing that possibility on the horizon might well have just walked away but not John Hume. He could have remained a teacher or Credit Union recruitment officer…but no. His vision was of the long-term benefits — removal of violence and different communities living in relative harmony. He literally devoted a huge swathe of his life to that vision.

He knew England had to be involved as well as the Irish Republic and in seeking American assistance he brought the impasse in Ulster onto a world stage. Governments and Taoisigh came and went down here but John Hume persisted and in 1998 succeeded. He never said there wouldn’t be bumps and blips along the route down the years and we’ve seen plenty. Yet his vision of peaceful co-existence still pervades today.

No one can predict the future — not even Nostradamus or Old Moore get everything right — but one thing is cast-iron and absolute. John Hume will be remembered forever when solutions are sought for problems that seem impossible.

A great Derry-man and a great Irishman his name will rank with Tone, Emmett, O Connell, Parnell, Pearse and Collins. I wish, like thousands of others, I could have been in ‘lovely Derry on the banks of the Foyle’ yesterday to say farewell but we lit the candle on Tuesday night. Our prayer and that of so many is surely, in the words of Phil Coulter,

They will not forget but their hearts are set

On tomorrow and peace once again. For what’s done is done and what’s won is won

And what’s lost is lost and gone forever

I can only pray for a bright brand-new day

In the town I’ve loved so well.

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