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John Hume, who worked to end N. Ireland violence, dies at 83

DAVE CAULKIN/Associated Press/File 1994

John Hume, a moderate Roman Catholic politician who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his dogged and ultimately successful campaign to end decades of bloodshed in his native Northern Ireland, died on Monday in the northern city of Derry. He was 83.

His death, at a nursing home, was announced by his family in a statement, which did not give the cause, though his wife, Pat Hume, had earlier acknowledged that he was struggling with dementia.

“I want to see Ireland as an example to men and women everywhere of what can be achieved by living for ideals, rather than fighting for them, and by viewing each and every person as worthy of respect and honor,” Mr. Hume said in 1998. “I want to see an Ireland of partnership, where we wage war on want and poverty, where we reach out to the marginalized and dispossessed, where we build together a future that can be as great as our dreams allow.”

An advocate of nonviolence, he fought for equal rights in what was then a Protestant-ruled state, but he condemned the Irish Republican Army because of his certainty that no injustice was worth a human life.

Although he advocated for a united Ireland, Mr. Hume believed change could not come to Northern Ireland without the consent of its Protestant majority. He also realized that better relations needed to be forged between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and between London and Dublin.

He championed the notion of extending self-government to Northern Ireland with power divided among the groups forming it.

“Ireland is not a romantic dream; it is not a flag; it is 4.5 million people divided into two powerful traditions,” he said. “The solution will be found not on the basis of victory for either, but on the basis of agreement and a partnership between both. The real division of Ireland is not a line drawn on the map, but in the minds and hearts of its people.”

Mr. Hume, a former French teacher who was known for a sharp wit but rarely for rhetorical flourishes, rose from hardscrabble beginnings to become the longtime leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

In his campaign for peace, inspired by the example of Martin Luther King Jr., he employed a winning combination of public exhortation against IRA violence and secret diplomacy with its political leadership, sitting down for talks in his modest row house over coffee. Deftly and persistently he enlisted the White House to help him reach his goal.

His efforts were recognized when he shared the Nobel with Protestant leader David Trimble in 1998, the year of the Good Friday peace agreement, which crowned his commitment to ending the unrest that had claimed more than 3,000 lives.

A television poll in Ireland in 2010 proclaimed Mr. Hume “Ireland’s Greatest.” In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI awarded him a papal knighthood.

Tributes poured in after Mr. Hume’s death was announced, including praise from Gerry Adams, former head of the IRA’s political wing who called him a “giant in Irish politics.” Former prime minister Tony Blair, who was in office at the time the accord was signed, lauded Mr. Hume’s “epic” contribution to the peace process.

Former president Bill Clinton and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton issued a statement describing their sadness. “Through his faith in principled compromise, and his ability to see his adversaries as human beings, John helped forge the peace that has held to this day,’’ they said.

Paradoxically, in bringing more radical Roman Catholic figures to the negotiating table — notably Adams — Mr. Hume undermined his own party’s appeal to voters. Battling poor health, he resigned in 2001 as leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which he had led since 1979, without enjoying the high office that might normally reward an architect of historic change.

In 2004, he said he would no longer seek election to the European and British parliaments, which he joined in 1979 and 1983, respectively. In late 2015, his wife, who was also his political manager, told the BBC that he was experiencing “severe difficulties” with dementia.

Throughout a career in Northern Ireland politics, in which finger-pointing and recrimination amplified a drumbeat of bombings and killings, Mr. Hume stood as a voice of reason, counseling against the cycles of bloodshed between the Protestant majority and the Roman Catholic minority.

“An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind,” he said, attributing the comment to King.

He argued instead for dialogue and reconciliation to still the furious conflict that pitted the IRA against Protestant paramilitary groups and thousands of British army soldiers. “We have to start spilling our sweat, not our blood,” he declared.

In the parlance of Northern Ireland, Mr. Hume was a “nationalist” whose dream of a reunited Ireland had no place for the violence embraced by “republicans” like the IRA, with its armed fighters and networks of financiers, bomb-makers, and sympathizers in the region and in the United States. Rather, he foresaw a time when Northern Ireland’s divide would give way to peace and economic self-interest.

Mr. Hume was so concerned about multimillion-dollar funding for the IRA by Irish Americans that he traveled frequently to Washington to convince US leaders, from President Carter onward, that a majority of Northern Irish people rejected the IRA’s violent methods. It was a message that culminated in a more active role in Northern Ireland adopted by President Clinton.

In one of three of visits to the Clinton White House by Mr. Hume, Clinton lauded him as “Ireland’s most tireless champion for civil rights and its most eloquent spokesman for peace.”

Back home, Mr. Hume had a parallel reputation as a man who did not suffer fools gladly.

“Question: What is the difference between John Hume and God?” one joke asked. “Answer: God doesn’t think he is John Hume.”

Mr. Hume’s most dramatic initiative played out in the late 1980s and mid-90s, when he held secret peace talks with Adams at a row house in Derry, which those seeking to retain close ties to Britain refer to as Londonderry.

The house itself was attacked several times over the years by firebombers — some Protestants, others Catholic supporters of the IRA — a token of the hazards and threats from both sides that persisted during the quest for peace. Mr. Hume was hospitalized several times in the mid-1990s for what he called “a case of nerves.”

He said the talks, over cups of coffee and glasses of Ballygowan mineral water, had begun in the early 1990s, a resumption of discussions dating to 1988.

For many Britons and Northern Irish Protestants, Adams was a pariah at the time, with a reputed history as an IRA commander, a role he has denied. As president of Sinn Fein — the political wing of the outlawed IRA, which the British authorities and many others viewed as a terrorist organization — Adams was depicted by his critics as no more than a front for the “hard men” of violence. And in talking to him, Mr. Hume risked the accusation that he was treating with terrorists.

“One was a man of peace and the other a man of war,” correspondent John Darnton wrote in The New York Times in 1994.

Finally, in September 1997, Sinn Fein, representing the IRA, and the leaders of Protestant parties sat at the same negotiating table for the first time since 1922, when Ireland was partitioned into an independent Irish Republic in the south and the British-run province in the north. Mr. Hume dismissed widespread suggestions that the IRA had bombed its way to the peace table. Without the violence, Mr. Hume argued, Sinn Fein would have been admitted to the talks years earlier.

But the relationship came with a heavy political cost.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Hume’s Social Democratic and Labour Party had controlled about two-thirds of the Catholic vote, Sinn Fein one-third. By mid-1997 Sinn Fein’s share had risen to about 40 percent. The trend continued. In the 2011 elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, Sinn Fein won twice as many seats as the SDLP. By helping to give Sinn Fein a place at the peace table, Mr. Hume had hurt his own party, and many of its members resented him for it.

John Hume was born in Derry on Jan. 18, 1937, the eldest of seven children of Sam Hume, a shipyard riveter who lived for many years on state welfare, and Annie Doherty Hume.

In a memoir, “John Hume — Personal Views: Politics, Peace and Reconciliation in Ireland,” he recalled his father taking him to a Republican meeting in the late 1940s.

“They were all waving flags and stirring up emotion for the united Ireland and an end to partition,” he wrote. “When my father saw that I was affected, he put his hand gently on my shoulder and said, ‘Son, don’t get involved in that stuff,’ and I said, ‘Why not, Da?’ He answered simply, ‘Because you can’t eat the flag.’ That was my first lesson in politics, and it has stayed with me to this day.”

He won a scholarship to St. Columb’s College, a grammar school in Derry for the small elite of middle-class Catholic professionals, and studied for the priesthood before switching to a degree course in French and history. He taught French in his 20s and became a leader in both the civil rights movement and the fledgling credit union movement.

In 1960, after three years of courtship, he married Pat Hone, a fellow teacher. At one point, alongside their teaching, the couple ran a modest smoked-salmon business.

He leaves his wife; their five children, Terese, Áine, Aidan, John, and Mo; as well as siblings and grandchildren, the family statement said.

As a rising politician, Mr. Hume was instrumental in preparing the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985. The pact gave Ireland, for the first time, a consultative role in the affairs of the North, but it also guaranteed that no change in the territory’s political status could be made without the consent of its Protestant majority. He remained close to leading political figures in the United States and was an energetic salesman for the territory, helping to persuade companies to move there.

When Jean Kennedy Smith, the older sister of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, was appointed US ambassador to the Irish Republic in 1993, Mr. Hume became one of her constant advisers. She responded by helping to persuade Clinton to end American sanctions against Sinn Fein and to support the inclusion of Adams and Sinn Fein at the peace talks. (Smith died in June at 92.)

A committed European, Mr. Hume believed that just as Western European borders were weakened to encourage trade, so could the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic be gradually eliminated as their economies became interdependent.

“I am a teacher,” he said. “You keep saying the same things over and over. Then you know you’re getting through when someone in a pub gives you back your own words.”


Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.