Hume, John

views updated Jun 08 2018

John Hume

BORN: January 18, 1937 • Derry, Northern Ireland

Northern Irish statesman

John Hume became a social activist and political leader in his native Northern Ireland to resolve the religious prejudice that initially drove the conflict between Britain and the Republic of Ireland over the control of Northern Ireland. He served in the European Parliament (government) and was a strong advocate of the European Union. The European Union is an organization of European nations formed in 1992 to promote political and economic partnerships. Hume was a cofounder of the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), a nationalist party seeking civil rights for Catholics in Northern Ireland, and was instrumental in shaping the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, the first attempt to bring an end to Northern Ireland strife by giving the Republic of Ireland some influence in Northern Ireland affairs.

"All conflict is about difference, whether the difference is race, religion, or nationality…. Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it."

One of the most effective leaders of the twentieth century, Hume gained respect on both sides of the peace process in Ireland and was one of the main authors of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement of 1998 that eventually brought peace to the region. That year, Hume was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble (1944–). Hume was also awarded the International Gandhi Peace Prize in 2001 for his efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland.

The boy from Derry

John Hume was born on January 18, 1937, to Sam and Annie Doherty Hume in the predominantly (mostly) Catholic city of Derry, on the island of Ireland. It was the same year that most of the island known as the Irish Free State declared independence from Britain and became known as Eire, which is Irish for "Ireland." It would later become known as the Republic of Ireland. Derry, however, was in the part of the island that remained under British rule. For this reason, Derry is also known as Londonderry because it is in the British-ruled northern counties of the divided island. Hume's Scottish ancestors were Protestants who moved to Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century and, through marriage, joined the Roman Catholic faith. John was the eldest of seven children.

Sam Hume worked as a civil servant before World War II (1939–45). However, high wartime wages in industry drew him to work at the local shipyards as a riveter. When the war ended, so did his employment. The family then existed on Sam's unemployment checks and Annie's earnings in the local shirt-making industry. Although the Humes lived in poverty, the children were raised with a sense of community and encouraged to help others in need. As the eldest son, John was responsible for adding to the household income. He had an evening newspaper route by the time he was eight years old. At the same age, he was chosen as an altar boy (attendant to the altar during worship service) at St. Eugene's Catholic cathedral in Derry. It was an honor that young Hume proudly earned.

Hume was among the first generation in Northern Ireland to enjoy free public education. He was a good student and went on to study at St. Columb's College in Derry and at St. Patrick's College in Maynooth. Hume originally intended to study for the priesthood. But his interests changed, and he graduated in 1958 from the National University of Ireland with a double major in French and history. He also spent several summers studying in France at St. Malo, Brittany, and the Institut Catholique in Paris. On December 10, 1960, John married Pat Hone. The couple had five children. They were active in promoting their shared public causes over the decades. In 1964, Hume received a master's degree in history from St. Patrick's College in Maynooth before returning to Derry to teach school.

A divided population

Derry is located in Northern Ireland, where deep political divisions existed between the Unionists and the Nationalists throughout most of the twentieth century. Unionists, mostly Protestant citizens, wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of Great Britain, with London as its political base. Nationalists, who were mostly Catholic, favored Irish independence. They wanted to reunite the provinces of Ireland that had been divided since the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Protestants held the majority of power in Northern Ireland's parliament located at Stormont, near Belfast. Therefore, Stormont was seen as a symbol of oppression by the Catholic community.

With these deep political divisions along religious lines, religious segregation existed in Derry. This meant that Catholics and Protestants were kept separate in public places. This separation resulted in varying economic and social conditions between Catholics and Protestants, conditions which left Catholic residents feeling like second-class citizens with restricted job and educational opportunities and living in impoverished neighborhoods. The Protestant majority lived on the east bank of the fast-flowing Foyle River that divided Derry. The city also had placed most public buildings and services, including both hospitals, on the east side. This left the unemployment office, police station, and courthouse on the west bank, where the Catholic minority lived. This discrimination led to a sense of hopelessness for Catholic young people, whose lives were blighted by poverty. Many families and youth left Derry in search of a better life.

A bid for unification

When Hume returned to Derry, he began searching for solutions to the divisions between the Catholics and Protestants. He wanted to unite the divided city and offer Catholics the means to improve their future. At this time, credit unions were an emerging community banking system that not only encouraged savings and investments, but also provided low-interest loans to members. The concept appealed to Catholics. Regular banks, largely managed by Protestants, gladly accepted their savings but did not always want their business when they needed a loan. Catholics were more likely to be unemployed and were more likely to receive lower wages if they did find work. Bankers stereotyped (forming an opinion of each member of a group based on their common traits) them as probable risks if money was loaned out. Demonstrating an understanding of their clients, credit unions provided an additional form of insurance. If a member were to die with debts, those debts would be cleared. If, on the other hand, a member had savings in the credit union when they died, that amount was doubled and the money was distributed to the family.

Hume saw the credit union movement both as a unifying force for Catholics and Protestants as well as a way to help the Catholics cope with money issues. In 1960, Hume and four cofounders in Derry joined together and organized the first credit union branch in Northern Ireland. Because of his commitment to the ideas of the movement, Hume was selected as its first treasurer. He traveled throughout Northern Ireland to promote the community aspect of the credit union. He argued that if they would help each other in financial affairs, they could tackle other problems together as well. Hume successfully convinced the Catholic community but failed to win over many Protestants despite his policy of cooperation and inclusion that was meant to unite the two traditions in a common cause.

The gulf between the two religious communities widened in 1965, when Derry lost its bid to have Northern Ireland's second university established there. As chairman of the University for Derry Campaign, Hume came face to face with the political reality in Northern Ireland. It was revealed that some Protestant political leaders had secretly advised the government against choosing Derry. They feared losing their majority status and control if the university came to town and the town grew in numbers. They preferred that the Catholic population remain a minority in Derry, even if that meant losing the university bid. Hume decided he needed to personally run for public office in order to change the face of discrimination and promote unity in his hometown.

The Troubles

Hume became a leading figure in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), founded in 1967 to promote civil rights (legal protections and privileges given to all citizens in a country) for Catholics in Northern Ireland. NICRA joined with the student-led People's Democracy (PD) to press for reform in the country's political system. Among the reforms they proposed were changes in the discriminatory manner in which public housing was assigned and change in unfair voting laws. Public demonstrations against the existing policies started out peaceful. However, rioting and violence soon followed on the part of both groups. The long-standing division between the Nationalists and the Unionists deepened, driven by activities of militant groups from the Republic of Ireland to the south. Most notable was the political party Sinn Fein and its armed branch, the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The oldest political organization in Ireland, Sinn Fein was organized as a political party in 1905 to secure Irish unity and independence. It reorganized in the 1960s and launched a political campaign to gain support on issues other than separation. The following period in Irish history, known as The Troubles, soon become very deadly as violence continued sporadically for thirty years. Throughout this period, the British Army suffered almost 500 casualties, more than in any other conflict since World War II. More than 3,500 people, both civilian and military, were killed on both sides.

In 1968, the government introduced a reform program in response to the NICRA protests. The proposed program split the Unionist community. This division allowed several civil rights activists in the Nationalist party, including Hume, to gain office in the parliamentary elections of February 1969. Hume took his place at Stormont as a Member of Parliament (MP). With his own political standing increased, the following year he helped found the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP). During this period, Britain retained ultimate control of security in Northern Ireland and steadily expanded its power in the region. For example, in 1971 the British government introduced a measure that allowed imprisonment without trial of any suspected terrorists from the Republic. The IRA escalated the violence in response to increased British control. They waged their campaign to drive the British out of Northern Ireland and unite the thirty-two counties on the island into a single independent nation.

In March 1972, Britain suspended the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont and took complete control of the country. A power-sharing leadership position was established through the Sunningdale Agreement between the Unionists and Nationalists. Hume was selected the Minister of Commerce. However, the power-sharing government fell apart in 1974 because of the lack of cooperation between the two groups.

In 1979, Hume was chosen as leader of the SDLP and elected to the European Parliament. Hume was elected in 1983 to the British Parliament as a Member of Parliament for the Foyle region that largely consists of the city of Derry. He used his parliamentary position to bring international attention to the call for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Hume's diplomatic efforts to help end the violence were instrumental in shaping the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. The agreement allowed the Republic of Ireland a limited say in Northern Ireland's political matters. However, many Unionists, Nationalists, and Irish Republicans rejected the agreement and The Troubles continued.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998

The Belfast Agreement is also known as the Good Friday (the Friday before Easter that commemorates the Crucifixion of Jesus) Agreement because the plan for the peaceful future of Northern Ireland was reached on Good Friday, April 10, 1998. Negotiators included representatives of the governments of Britain, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland. The negotiations were conducted with the help of other international diplomats. In order to include everyone and ensure a stable peace, the talks included Sinn Fein as well as political representatives of Protestant paramilitary organizations. The Belfast Agreement reaffirmed the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 that guaranteed that the political status of Northern Ireland could only be changed by a majority vote in Northern Ireland. The plan established an Equality Commission and a Human Rights Commission. They addressed the issues of reform in the criminal justice system and policing and help for victims of violence.

The Agreement proposed three levels or strands of interconnected institutions to govern Northern Ireland and ensure peace for its people. Strand One of the agreement arranged for the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and its elected executive position. Strand One was to deal with the citizens of Northern Ireland itself. Strand Two was to maintain productive relationships between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The two governments would work together within the North-South Ministerial Conference (NSMC) on all cross-border issues. Strand Three established a British-Irish Inter-Governmental Conference to promote cooperation between all members of the British Isles.

A large margin of voters in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland approved the Belfast Agreement. However, the IRA and other opponents of the Agreement continued their terrorist activities for several more years. However, in 2005 the IRA declared an end to their campaign and acceptance of the political arrangements created by the Belfast Agreement. They disarmed their members and destroyed their store of weapons.

Hume reopened negotiations with Sinn Fein and the government in 1988. The talks resulted in a temporary ceasefire that lasted from 1994 to 1996. Renewed peace talks began in 1997 and resulted in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement of 1998 (see box). Hume had long been criticized for negotiating with terrorist groups. However, it was his contacts and political lobbying that proved critical toward pushing the peace talks along in the 1990s in Northern Ireland. As a result of his long and finally successful efforts, Hume shared the Nobel Peace Prize of 1998 with Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader David Trimble, who was leader of the UUP from 1995 to 2005. They were recognized for their leadership in promoting peace in Northern Ireland. Hume resigned from the leadership of the SDLP in 2001, the same year he was awarded the International Gandhi Peace Prize.

For More Information


Arthur, Paul, and Jeffery, Keith. Northern Ireland Since 1968. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1996.

O'Malley, Padraig. Biting at the Grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1990.

Routledge, Paul. John Hume: A Biography. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997.

Townshend, Charles. Ireland in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 1998.

White, Barry. John Hume: Statesman of The Troubles. Belfast: The Blackstaff Press Limited, 1984.


"John Hume, The Nobel Peace Prize 1998: Nobel Lecture." The Nobel Foundation. (accessed on December 11, 2006).

Hume, John

views updated Jun 11 2018

Hume, John

John Hume (1937–), civil-rights activist and nationalist leader, was born in Derry city on 18 January. He was educated at Saint Columb's College, Derry, and at Maynooth. Returning to Derry, he became a schoolteacher and a leading credit-union organizer, and he was prominent in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. In 1969 his displacement of the Nationalist Party leader Eddie McAteer as Stormont MP for Foyle marked the emergence of a more articulate and professional nationalist politics. In 1970 Hume cofounded the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which combined civil-rights activists, Belfast laborists, and elements of the crumbling Nationalist Party; Hume became deputy leader under west Belfast MP Gerry Fitt. In 1974 Hume was minister for commerce in the power-sharing executive established under the Sunningdale Agreement. The Ulster Workers' Council strike convinced Hume that an internal Northern Ireland settlement was impossible; the Irish Republic must act as guarantor. In 1979 Hume became SDLP leader and was elected to the European parliament; he emphasized the role of European integration in resolving territorial disputes. In 1983 he became Westminster MP for Foyle. During the 1980s Hume was immensely popular in the Irish Republic, where he was nicknamed "Saint John." His calls for peace and reconciliation were inspiring if repetitive (wags mocked his "single transferable speech"). Hume proved extremely effective at rallying external support for the SDLP through extensive contacts in Europe and the United States. Helped by the desire of the British and Irish governments to contain Sinn Féin after the 1981 hunger strike, Hume played a decisive role in securing the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. Beginning in 1988 Hume entered intermittent negotiations with the Sinn Féin leadership. He was widely criticized for lending respectability to Sinn Féin, but these contacts proved crucial in developing the Northern Ireland peace process of the 1990s. Hume led the SDLP in the negotiations that produced the 1998 Belfast Agreement, and he received the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize (jointly with David Trimble). Thereafter Hume became less prominent; he stayed out of the new executive and resigned his Northern Ireland Assembly seat in 2000. Sinn Féin increasingly overtook the SDLP in popularity among Northern nationalists; Hume's leadership, always autocratic, grew increasingly tired. He resigned as SDLP leader after party setbacks in the 2001 Westminster election. Despite occasional accusations of egoism and insensitivity toward unionists, he was a figure of great political and moral stature and the most effective twentieth-century Northern nationalist leader.

SEE ALSO Adams, Gerry; Northern Ireland: Constitutional Settlement from Sunningdale to Good Friday; Northern Ireland: The United States in Northern Ireland since 1970; Trimble, David; Ulster Politics under Direct Rule


Drower, George. John Hume: Peacemaker. 1995.

Murray, Gerard. John Hume and the SDLP. 1998.

Routledge, Paul. John Hume: A Biography. 1997.

White, Barry. John Hume: Statesman of the Troubles. 1984.

Patrick Maume

Hume, John

views updated May 11 2018

Hume, John (1937– ) Northern Irish politician, leader (1983–2001) of the nationalist Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP). He was a founding member and president (1964–68) of the Credit Union League. He entered Parliament in 1983. His commitment to peace in Northern Ireland helped secure an IRA cease-fire. Hume shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize with David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.

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