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Hume among the extraordinary ones who bring change


When 1998 Nobel Peace Prize laureate John Hume finished a recent talk and open discussion at Catholic Theological Union of Chicago, he closed with a lilting rendition of Phil Coulter’s “The Town I Loved So Well.” It was another of those myriad Irish ballads that would bring tears to a marble statue of the Blessed Mother. In fact, his audience joined in and some did leak a tear or two.

The founder and leader of Northern Ireland’s largest political party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, looked exhausted. His health is awful and he is plagued by depression. His service for peace has nearly worn him out, but his thoughts seemed to energize him.

“The Town I Loved So Well” was about his hometown of Derry (read Londonderry, if you’re fussy. And hum “Danny Boy.”) With a population of 68,000, Derry is the North’s second largest city after Belfast, founded by St. Columba in 546. John Hume was born there in 1937 and went to St. Columba’s College with another Nobel winner, the poet Seamus Heaney, who took the literature prize in 1996.

Hume is less well known than other Peace Prize winners such as Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Albert Schweitzer, Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa. He didn’t have the renown already established by other winners. He shared the award with David Trimble, the leader of the major Protestant Party, who would have been Northern Ireland’s first Minister if the peace effort were not stillborn.

Hume divided his $500,000 share between the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Salvation Army. Chances are he could have used the money, made possible ironically by Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite in 1866.

Catholic Theological Union may have the highest I.Q. of any Catholic theological school in the country. Hume could have spoken in Urdu and no one would have left the room. With 500 students, including religious from 32 male congregations, a covey of nuns and over half the student body composed of laity, it is the largest Catholic theological school in the country.

But it isn’t all theological palaver. According to three-time president, Passionist Fr. Donald Senior, Catholic Theological Union’s mission is preparing “ministers of peace.” Thus, the honor to Hume who has virtually burned himself out as a prime mover behind the continuing search for peace in Northern Ireland.

The embryonic Northern Irish coalition government was stillborn the day it was to convene -- July 16, 1999. The impasse was the result of Sinn Fein’s insistence that the Irish Republican Army would begin giving up its illegal weapons only after the formation of the new government, while the Unionists demanded disarmament first. (Sinn Fein is the political arm of the IRA. Its name is Gaelic for We Ourselves. Its spokesman is Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein president. Adams gets far more publicity than Hume, who heads the largest Catholic party and who has been primarily instrumental is establishing and maintaining the often tenuous peace process.)

Subsequent talks on the agreement, which would have ended three decades of direct rule from London, have gone nowhere, despite the last ditch intervention of former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who helped engineer the 1998 landmark Good Friday agreement.

The Good Friday accord came on April 10, 1998, after 22 months of negotiations involving eight of the 10 political parties. Negotiators included Britain’s Tony Blair, Ireland’s Bertie Ahern and the U.S.’s Bill Clinton.

They did not include the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the small Catholic-hating Democratic Unionist Party, who boycotted the talks. But Paisley garnered the publicity. Hume once said to Paisley: “If I took ‘no’ out of your talk, you’d be speechless.” Paisley’s answer: “No, I wouldn’t.”

The Good Friday Accord called for the Protestants to share power with the Catholics and gave the Irish Republic a voice in Northern Irish affairs. In return, Catholics would give up a pursuit of a united Ireland.

The proposition won, 79 percent to 21 percent. In the Irish Republic, it drew 94 percent of the vote. The people were weary of fighting. Citizens under 30 had known nothing but conflict. From 1969 to 1998, over 3,200 died and 30,000 were wounded. The agreement came within inches, but the stubborn IRA wouldn’t give up their guns. To do so would be to admit they were wrong.

The guns are silent now. People under 30, who knew nothing but trouble, now see the possibility of peace. Although the agreement remains in limbo, there hasn’t been any shooting since 1994. The people are working together in factories. “Let’s spill our sweat, not our blood,” Hume told them. “After all, you can’t eat a flag.”

The differences in religion were only the presenting problem. According to Hume, the broader problems represent a deeper conflict that goes back at least three centuries. Hume believes that differences are natural, not something to fight about. With his distinctive Northern Ireland brogue that leaves all his sentences sounding like questions, he said: “The people can get the differences sorted out. We can set up democratic institutions that respect democracy.”

He also gave the churches on both sides as much praise as he did President Clinton and Mitchell, together with Great Britain’s Tony Blair. “We owe a deep and enormous gratitude to your president,” he said. “And the church leaders at home are talking to each other, but they’re not involved in the political process.”

Hume advocated drawing a line over the past. “Let history judge the past,” he said. “We can build a future together.”

Hume is a disciple of the late Martin Luther King Jr., who won the Peace Prize in 1964. “King said, ‘We can’t ask for an eye for and eye. It only makes for more blind people.’ Now, that’s a powerful sentence, isn’t it?” Hume asked rhetorically.

John Hume has a politician’s skill at reducing issues to their simplest terms. “Look at your American one-cent piece,” he told the crowd. “It’s right there -- e pluribus unum [from many come one]. It’s on Lincoln’s grave, too. That’s what we’re after. Unity means agreement.”

Hume has the gift of making the complex clear. He is not burdened by the required elevated language of people in high office, whose thoughts are often buried in the pluperfect subjunctive or lost in paragraphs they can’t get out of.

When the conference ended, Hume slumped into a Naugahyde chair and had some hot tea out of a plastic cup while he took more questions. Other people gathered around his gentle-looking wife, Patricia, the mother of their five children. Poor John Hume looked as weary as mortal sin.

He was a man who had established Derry’s first credit union to help struggling workers -- one that now has assets of over 44 million pounds. For over 30 years he has been the leader of a nonviolent movement. He won his first seat in the Northern Ireland Parliament in 1969. He has served in the European Parliament since 1979 and as an elected member of the House of Commons, representing the Foyle constituency, which includes Derry. An equivalent national figure in the United States -- or even a Chicago alderman -- would have been surrounded by flunkies, clinging as close as glaze on a doughnut.

Next day, he would address 60 U.S. business people, urging them to come to Ireland and employ the bright, 98 percent literate, English-speaking Irish who could run their computers and work their small energy machines -- and talk about peace over a glass of stout.

With the guns silent, both Northern Ireland and the Republic are enjoying an economic boom. Unemployment is under 10 percent. Thousands of FBI (foreign born Irish) in the United States are returning to the sod where they’ll earn less than they do here but where they can send their kids to school without bulletproof schoolbags. In both Irelands, the youth are getting off the dole and finding respect in work.

Next evening, Hume went to the Conrad Hilton Hotel and sat on the dais next to watered silk and was honored at Catholic Theological Union’s “Blessed Are the Peacemakers” dinner.

Precious Blood Fr. Robert Schreiter, professor of doctrinal theology, introduced Hume and said: “Peacemaking and reconciliation are more a spirituality than a strategy. ... Enemies can come to the table. A different future can be born. There are a few extraordinary people who can bring this about. John Hume is one of those people.”

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he prays in inclusive language. You can join him at unsworth@megsinet.net.

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2000