John Hume

Founding member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party

John Hume was born in Derry City on January 18, 1937. Originally a teacher, he became active in community politics in the 1960s, affiliated with the Credit Union movement. In 1970, Hume became a founding member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, acting as its deputy leader until 1979.

Hume played a key role in the assorted negotiations of the 1970s, serving as Commerce Minister in the shortlived power-sharing Executive of 1973-74. As the violence continued and politics drifted, Hume came to believe an internal solution to the political and military crisis in Northern Ireland was impossible and he sought to widen the scope of local politics.

Specifically, he saw merit in trying to increase the influence of America, Dublin and the European Union on the political processes in Northern Ireland.

Hume’s interest in internationalising local politics led to a disagreement with Gerry Fitt, the leader of the SDLP, culminating in Fitt’s resignation. John Hume was subsequently appointed leader in November 1979.

One consequence of Hume’s new direction was his refusal to play an active role in the initiatives of the early 1980s, namely the Constitutional Conference of 1980 and the Assembly from 1982 to 1986. Meanwhile, this shift in his global view saw the SDLP playing a role in the New Ireland forum of 1983-84.

The early 1980s saw the hunger strikes and the emergence of Sinn Féin as an electoral force. Hume responded to these developments by trying to encourage Sinn Féin, the political wing of the republican movement, into the political process.

From 1988 to 1993, Hume held secret meetings with Sinn Féin and its leader Gerry Adams. These talks were used to try to dissuade the republicans from continuing their military campaign.

When the existence of these talks was revealed in 1993, Hume faced widespread hostility from unionists opposed to anyone talking to parties allied to paramilitaries. He also faced strong opposition from within the SDLP because his opponents felt he had given too much credence to the republicans, potentially damaging the SDLP’s own electoral base. These discussions did, however, play the role foreseen by Hume. The republican movement engaged in the political process and the IRA called a ceasefire in 1994.

In April 1998, Hume played a key role in the Belfast agreement and the May referendum. One of the primary images from that period is that of Hume and David Trimble holding hands with Bono from the rock group U2.

In 1998, Hume and Trimble were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. However, having established the Belfast agreement and the Northern Ireland assembly, Hume decided to reduce his active role in local politics. He did not stand for the posts in the following assembly elections and subsequently stood down in August 2000.

Since 2001, John Hume has announced his resignation as party leader and from posts held in both the European and Westminster parliaments. With his less direct involvement in local politics, Hume has increasingly played a role on the world stage as a peacemaker.

© Ciaran Crossey 2004