The liberal hero who sealed in Ulster’s sectarianism
John Hume, 1937-2020
I’m thankful I’m on holiday and have given up on twitter for as much of August as I can, as without doubt I’d drown in treacle today following the death of John Hume. But it’s impossible to close your ears to the gush, however hard you try. On Radio 4’s the World At One, the continuity man read out the following words: ‘John Hume was respected for his determination to unite protestants and catholics to bring stability to Northern Ireland.’ It’s hard for a sentence to be both meaningless and wrong, but credit where it’s due, this one managed it. Far from uniting anyone, Hume was an emblem of the sectarianism which his disastrous career in public life copper-bottomed in Northern Ireland.
Hume was an emblem of sectarianism whose disastrous career in public life copper-bottomed it in Northern Ireland
Hume never stepped outside the sectarian laager. His vision was an agreed Ireland, which meant, agree to the vision being Ireland. There was no goal Hume pursued that was a Northern Ireland content and at peace with itself: he sought, and worked towards, a province removed from the United Kingdom and placed into the Irish Republic. This work did not have happy or peaceful consequences, not least for the pitiful place that is Ulster today.
If Brian Faulkner, the first Unionist leader of a ‘powersharing executive,’ hadn’t fallen off his horse while hunting in the late 70s with the Co Down Staghounds, and had instead lived into an old age littered with platitudinous TED Talks about the moral imperative of, say, an “Agreed Britain,” there would be no ocean of gush if he had gone to reward aetat 99 years this afternoon. So why, without even looking, do I know that this is what you unfortunates are suffering today about John Hume?
The late SDLP leader was a self-infatuated, monomaniacal, tribalist. Ask yourself, why, when he ushered Gerry Adams and his band of child murderers into polite society, was this process Hume-Adams and not Hume-Molyneaux? Because it was Irish nationalism’s version of the hard left’s ‘no enemies to the left.’ Adams was on Hume’s side; peaceful, plodding Jim Molyneaux was not.
This approach to politics defined Hume’s leadership of constitutional nationalism: he despised the IRA because they were harming the interests of nationalism. By Hume’s repeatedly, openly stated lights, Irish Republican terrorism pushed off the day Northern Ireland might be separated from the rest of the UK. His problem with them was not because their goal was in any way wrong, and he never once broke with Sinn Fein in his or their mutual pursuit of it. That’s why he talked to nationalists before unionists, that’s why he sought to build a “pan-nationalist front” with them rather than attempt a cross-community effort with unionists, and it’s why thereafter, whenever any controversy would arise during what became known as “the process,” every single time when a side had to be chosen, John Hume chose Sinn Fein’s side.
Adams et al were letting the side down; however, it was emphatically Hume’s side they were letting down. He never forgot that, nor should anyone else today. John Hume was not an avatar of cross community reconciliation, but the embodiment of resolute sectarian division.
Whenever there came disputes, before, during or after the Belfast Agreement, which saw Sein Fein on one side, and constitutional unionism or anyone else on the other, Hume never even tried to break out of the sectarian mindset and side with non-nationalists. Gerry Fitt, his predecessor as SDLP leader, could and did: his reward for his courage and disdain for communalism was to be personally traduced and politically destroyed by Hume and his cultists. Writing Gerry Fitt out of today’s hagiographies will be a guaranteed part of them.
I remember as a child meeting Hume in some social context not long after he had given the most recent iteration of one of his most boring “single transferable speeches” – how “we” [sic] needed to be ‘a bridge between Boston and Berlin.’ ‘Not London then?’ teenage me snarked, ‘it’s quite a bit closer than either you know.’ Dismissive incomprehension was the response. And whether to unpleasant unionist children or to their grown-up peers, this approach from John Hume never altered.
For the ultimate in triumphalist, sectarian symbolism, look just at what Hume and the SDLP did in the city of his and my birth the first moment they could. Once there was a nationalist majority on the council they beseeched the Northern Ireland Office to change the local authority’s name away from incorporating – the hated and intolerable to them – “Londonderry” to being just Derry City Council (thank you very much junior NIO minister Chris Patten for agreeing to that). No pious nonsense then (or since – note well) about an ‘agreed’ name, as a salve to ‘both’ sides. Just my side on top now, and let’s rub that in good and hard: we wouldn’t want themmuns to forget about that. John Hume, whenever he had the chance to exercise political leadership never did so in the interests of reconciliation with the other side: he consistently exercised it in the interests of his own side.
It is hard to overstate the dislike Hume had for themmuns, the Ulster argot for ‘the other side,’ whichever side that is. Normally Hume cloaked it in sententious waffle, but it bubbled to the surface in word as well as repetitive deed. Few 80s smears came riper than sneering that people you disliked were “Afrikaners,” but Hume inevitably saw Unionists, a majority, as in fact being a racist minority. The projection was palpable, the dislike was undisguised.
Inevitably, tediously, such anti-British views left Hume an icon for patronising, ignorant, progressive English politicians, academics and journalists
Inevitably, tediously, such anti-British views left Hume an icon for patronising, ignorant, progressive English politicians, academics and journalists. Views and actions they’d denounce coming from, say, an ethnic Hungarian separatist outside Hungary’s current borders, they went weak at the knees about when they heard the fiddle of justice twiddling away. Poor natives like Hume, in this astoundingly racist construction, lacked any agency, and were just pets to pat on the head to display metropolitan oneupmanship. The idea that you should apply to them and their völkisch politics the contempt you would to others engaging in them elsewhere, well forget about it. Much like the SNP not being ‘nationalist’ nationalists in the delusional eyes of English radical chicists, today will doubtless come and go without Hume being a nationalist nationalist either.
And what did his achievements get Hume and the mythical ‘Ireland’ he never lost sight of? His party destroyed in the north; the Shinners on the rampage in the south (a place which, incidentally, he never understood: much of his strength lay precisely in being an insular provincial, who barely comprehended the east of the province let alone the Free State); and worst of all, for all the moral degradation of Hume-Adams (literally sitting down with people any other NYRB-profile beneficiary would anywhere else have regarded as being nativist war criminal untouchables – worse than Israelis even, or at least on a par with them), it has left Sinn Fein and the IRA utterly unredeemed.
Irish Republicanism has been left entirely unchanged by the saintly embrace of John Hume: it both maintains the Provos in existence, and, far from feeling remorse, let alone being held responsible for their monstrous crimes, Sinn Fein, with the assistance of a credulous press, now brazenly attempts generational gaslighting about what the Provos actually did.
This is the legacy of Hume: he facilitated it at every step of the way, rejected out of hand all alternatives, and was spared in senility from seeing the fruits of his handiwork. He was the indispensable man in child murderers being able to present themselves as being campaigners for social housing and trans rights, and for fools on other islands believing them. Hume, being incurably vain in addition to being intellectually incurious, wallowed in these brief glances of admiration like a Seamus Heaney who had forgotten his rhyme scheme.
John Hume did not defeat the IRA, the security forces did that; what John Hume did was to politically reward Sinn Fein. He normalised them and the settlement in Northern Ireland, which is very much his, is also incurable institutionalised sectarianism. He was a disaster, if your hope was that Northern Ireland could move on from tribal primitivism. Hume entrenched and legitimised it. Gerry Fitt is the great lost man who reached across the divide, rather than held hands on his side of it. If you hear his name today, it’ll be to dismiss the genuine work of reconciliation he tried and which Hume helped forestall.
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