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Obituary: John Hume, champion of peace in Northern Ireland's darkest days

(Reuters) - John Hume, a Catholic nationalist and Nobel peace laureate who died on Monday aged 83, will be remembered as a man who championed peace even during the darkest days of Northern Ireland’s guerrilla war.

His home in Londonderry looked out on the Bogside, a Catholic zone which was racked by bombs and bullets as Irish Republican Army (IRA) gunmen battled British troops.

Just across the border in the Irish Republic, his hideaway holiday home by the placid waters of Lough Foyle, in County Donegal, was full of mementos of a lifetime’s struggle.

A text of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, given to Hume by the U.S. civil rights leader’s wife Coretta, was a personal treasure.

“The reason I went into public life in the North (of Ireland) was to work to try and solve the problem... I didn’t go in there to get myself a job,” he told Reuters in an interview.

Hume, a former teacher who rejected violence as a means to achieve his goal of a united Ireland, was rewarded in December 1998 with the Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with David Trimble, the British-ruled province’s moderate Protestant leader who had decided the future lay in co-operation with Catholics.

Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace deal, signed in April 1998, was a personal triumph for Hume and holds firm today.

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It was the culmination of a lonely, and often reviled, quest to bring Northern Ireland the stability that had eluded it since the island was partitioned in 1922.

As leader of the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), Hume helped kick-start the peace process in the late 1980s by secretly meeting Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA’s political ally, Sinn Fein.

He was fiercely criticised when those contacts became public in 1993. In the Irish Republic, Hume was accused of making common cause with paramilitaries, while a senior Northern Irish unionist politician said he had “sold his soul to the Devil”.

Hume said he did not care “two balls of roasted snow” about the criticism, and he felt vindicated when his initiative led to the first IRA ceasefire in 1994.


Hume was born in Londonderry in January 1937 at the height of the Depression, the son of an unemployed riveter.

FILE PHOTO: 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 PM/MD/JV/File Photo

His father, who was his hero, urged him to avoid narrow nationalist chauvinism “because you can’t eat a flag”.

“What he was saying is what I am saying today, that real politics are not about flag-waving. They are about providing bread on your table and a roof over your head,” he said.

Hume joined the civil rights movement in 1968 and fought against discrimination in everything from housing to education just as the “The Troubles”, Northern Ireland’s 30 years of sectarian bloodshed, began.

Two years later, he co-founded the SDLP, which coupled his social democratic leanings with the Catholic minority’s wish to reunite the island.

In 1979, Hume was elected to the European and British parliaments and also became SDLP leader, a post he held till 2001, when he stood down citing ill health.

In an ironic twist, Hume’s successors have been unable to prevent the SDLP being eclipsed by Sinn Fein - the party he did so much to bring into the political mainstream - as the chief political voice for Northern Irish Catholics.

Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Gareth Jones