John Hume


Interview, August 2006

Interview with John Hume by freelance journalist Marika Griehsel in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, 31 August 2006.

John Hume talks about the Nobel Peace Prize; the Good Friday Agreement and Downing Street declaration (2:37); growing up in poverty (5:02) and the importance of education (6:00) at large and in the third world; the Northern Ireland peace process, talks with the IRA (7:32); the Anglo-Irish Agreement (9:05); Hume’s philosophy of peace (14:30) and his principles of peace (17:02); the European Union and its contribution to peace in Europe (16:20); Martin Luther King as a source of inspiration (18:50); the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland (18:57); similarities to the peace process in South Africa (21:58); the crucial importance of dialogue in conflict resolution (25:21).

Interview transcript

Mr Hume, thank you for coming here today. First of all I would like to know, when you got that phone call back in 1998, what did you think when they called you and told you that you were going to be the Prize winner?

John Hume: I was obviously very moved when I received the phone call telling me that I was receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. I was very moved and very, very honoured. There’s no way I expected that, but what it showed to me was, given the international respect that there is for the Nobel Peace Prize and for the Nobel organisation, the very fact that they were giving a peace reward to Northern Ireland showed the huge international interest in the situation in Northern Ireland and indeed the enormous international support for our peace process. Because in my view the very fact that the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded strengthened our peace process.

That was in 1998. You had had the Good Friday Agreement and you had had the referendum. What were the major outcome of these two significant incidents in your history?

John Hume: The major outcome was that given the talks that took place, myself and my party proposed that the problem was about three sets of relationships. Relationships within Northern Ireland, relationships within Ireland, and between Britain and Ireland. And therefore that those three sets of relationships should be on the agenda for any discussions and dialogue to bring about lasting peace and lasting agreement. And that meant the two governments working together, the British and Irish governments, with all the parties in Northern Ireland. It took a long time to get that to happen. But that was a very important part of the peace process as well as getting violence ended. And of course, when then we met to have the talks on those three sets of relationships, myself and my party proposed that when agreement was reached the last word should be with the people, not the politicians. That the agreement should be put in a referendum north and south on the one day.

And that’s a very important factor, because in the past, paramilitary organisations always claimed they were acting in the name of the people. Now, for the first time in history, following the Good Friday Agreement, the people of Ireland as a whole, north and south, have spoken as to how they wish to live together, by overwhelmingly voting for the Good Friday Agreement. Therefore it’s now the duty of all true democrats to implement the will of the people. To implement all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. And I believe now that it is the real duty of the two governments to make it very, very clear that that is the real duty of all the people. The real duty of all true democrats to implement the will of the people and implement all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. And that’s the stage that we’re now at. And I have no doubt that eventually that agreement will be fully implemented.

How do you foresee the peace, the long lasting peace in Northern Ireland? What will it have to contain?

John Hume: Of course the atmosphere on our streets is now totally transformed. There is total peace on our streets, there is no doubt about that. And the atmosphere has changed completely. And of course, given as I’ve said, that the overwhelming majority of the people both in Northern Ireland and in the south of Ireland, the rest of Ireland, have overwhelming voted for the agreement that shows that there is no role of any description for people with violence in this situation. That the real role now of true democrats is to implement the will of the people. To implement the Good Friday Agreement. And of course that’s being held up at the moment by the opposition of certain political parties. The atmosphere on the streets is transformed. But there’s still the usual party political difference here. There’s a certain political party as I’ve once said to them, if you took the word “no” out of the English language you’d be speechless, and he said “No, I wouldn’t”. But as I say, the time has come to underline the fact that if they are elected political parties and they regard themselves as democrats, then it’s their duty to implement the will of the people. The democratic will of the people which is the overwhelming vote for the Good Friday Agreement.

If you look back into your own childhood and what shaped you as a human being and a peace worker and a human rights activist, what were the major facts in your early life?

John Hume: The major facts in my early life as a child was that I grew up in poverty. My father was unemployed. There was widespread discrimination against our people in the Northern Ireland of those days. And therefore we grew up in poverty, but my father was a very able man. He was a copperplate hand writer, and so a lot of people used to come into our house for my father to write their letters. And when I was a child I’d be sitting doing my school homework at the table and my father would be talking to friends and neighbours about their problems.

… without education of course I wouldn’t be where I am today.

So from when I was no age, you know, the realities of our situation was very obvious. And I was one of the lucky ones that the first year of what’s called the 11+ examination, the first year in which working class people were able to get scholarships and therefore to be educated beyond primary school, at secondary school and university, and I got the scholarships and I was very lucky. So without education of course I wouldn’t be where I am today.

And of course I always say, because of my own experience, that one of the things we should all be doing, that major countries should be doing for third world countries, is making sure that they all have education. Because what all the third world countries have in common is that they’ve no education at all. The only wealth in the world is people. Without people any country is only a jungle. But if people are not educated then they will not be creative. So education was a very important factor in my life. I have no doubt about that.

Your father once said to you, you can’t eat a flag, what did he mean by that?

John Hume: You see, what he meant by that was it was on the streets of the time elections were taking place as they always did with both sides waving flags. And young people getting all excited. And my father was standing watching this with me and he tapped me on the shoulder and he says “Don’t you get involved in that stuff, son”. I say “Why not, dad?”. And he says “You can’t eat a flag”. In other words what he was saying is real politics is about the living standards, about social and economic development. It’s not about waving flags at one another.

And that of course goes back to the third world countries as well, doesn’t it?

John Hume: Yes exactly.

And to any kind of peace situation. I would like to come back to that in a moment, but before that I would like to ask you when you then moved on you were a teacher, human rights activist and a political party leader. Sometimes in the 80s you took a bold step and started to talk to IRA and to Gerry Adams. What made you go that route?

John Hume: I decided that as an elected representative it was my duty to do everything in my power to get peace on our streets, as it was one of our major problems. And of course I thought that one definite and direct way of doing so was in direct dialogue with those organisations that were engaged in violence. And when I was very severely criticised for doing that I said very clearly “Look, given that thousands of British soldiers on our streets haven’t stopped the violence. If I could save one human life by talking to somebody, it’s my duty to do so”. That’s what I said at the time.

Of course the historian in me knew what were the traditional reasons for IRA violence. And I knew that whatever about the past those reasons did not exist today. So when I started my dialogue with them that’s what I was saying and they told me to prove that and they would stop. And I went to the British government in the day and the Irish government and got them to make the joint declaration which made clear what I was saying to the IRA. Because their traditional reasons for violence was that the British are in Ireland defending their own interests by force, so for the Irish have the right to use force to put them out. My response to that whatever about the past that’s not true today. The only reason the British are here today is because the majority of the people in Northern Ireland want them to be. That majority changes their mind the British will agree with it and leave. And of course that’s what I got the British to say. In the Anglo Irish agreement Margaret Thatcher made clear, and I was involved in getting this said, that if a majority of people in Northern Ireland wished Irish unity they would legislate for it. And of course the Downing Street declaration made that very, very clear and that was central to our peace process.

… when you have a divided people the only solution is agreement. When you have a divided people violence will never solve the problem.

And of course the next major step in the peace process was of course that when you have a divided people the only solution is agreement. When you have a divided people violence will never solve the problem. It will only deepen the division. The only method of solving a problem of divided people is by dialogue taking place in a peaceful atmosphere and the objective of the dialogue is agreement. And now that we have reached that agreement it’s now the duty of all true democrats in our country to implement the will of the people by implementing all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement.

There was a specific incident that I have read about. 1993 there was a bombing of a shop in Shankill and there was retaliation killing and a man got killed and you were at the funeral of that man. He was a father of I don’t know how many children. But the daughter to that man came up to you afterwards and said she had prayed for you and the efforts that you were making to create peace. Can you remember that incident and how was your reaction?

John Hume: Yes, I remember that incident. It was very, very moving. When you consider the suffering of that young lady and her family … Yet they were making very, very clear that their strong support was for peace on our streets and there was no way they would be involved in any form of violence or retaliation. They were totally committed to peace people. And of course that was very, very moving to me, when she said that to me on such a sad occasion for herself and her family.

You manage to convince not only people here, but also people right through the world, that it was the only way to go. I mean, people back in America, who had taken sides without even living here. How was it, going out on the world stage to try to convince people and tell them “This is what we’re trying to do? Please support us in this.”

John Hume: Well of course … given that the Irish are the biggest wandering people in the world, you know, there’s 45 million Irish Americans and there’s five million people live in Ireland. Obviously there was enormous world interest in the situation in Ireland. And therefore enormous world support for our peace process. And that was what I was very interested in ensuring, that there was strong support for our peace process at international level. And of course in achieving our peace we received very, very substantial international support from the United States. For example Senator Kennedy, the late speaker Tip O’Neill, the late Senator Moynihan and governor Hugh Carey. The four of them had worked very closely together with me in giving strong support to our peace process. They become known as “the four horsemen”. And of course President Bill Clinton was very heavily involved as well. He had peace in Northern Ireland right at the top of his agenda. And that was a very, very important and very strong factor in our peace process.

If you look at the world today we have the tragic incident “9/11”. We have a war going on in Iraq. We have a conflict in Palestine, Lebanon, Israel. Have the world leaders not learned from the experience that people like you have had here in Northern Ireland, for example? What is the problem?

John Hume: I think now that first of all it’s very clear to anybody, whether they’re a world leader or not, that there has never been a war in the history of the world in which the vast majority of victims have not been human beings. So anybody knows that if they’re going to declare war that there are going to be killing large, large numbers of human beings. Therefore that should never be a method of solving a problem. Now given that in our present world we are living through the biggest revolution in the history of the world: telecommunications revolution, the transport revolution, and the technological revolution. As a result of that the world that we’re living in today is a much smaller place. Therefore we’re in a stronger position to shape that world. And the large countries of that world, led by example by the United States, should come together and make it a principle that they are going to work to create a world in which there is no longer any war or any conflict.

… difference is an accident of birth, nobody chose to be born into any community.

In other words, where there are areas in the world where there is danger of war or conflict, what they would be sending to those areas now would not be armies to create war or anything, but the philosophy of peace to resolve conflict. And of course the philosophy that I’m talking about is the philosophy of the founding fathers of the United States. It’s a philosophy of the European Union. It’s a philosophy of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. That may sound strange but … as I’ve always said conflict, no matter where it exists, is always about the same thing. It’s about difference. People are fighting about their difference either in their race or their religion or their nationality. And of course it should be made very clear that since difference is an accident of birth, nobody chose to be born into any community. It’s not something we should fight about. It’s something we should respect.

That’s the first principle of peace. Respect for difference. The second principle is institutions that do that. For example I always tell the story when I first went to Strasbourg as a member of the European Parliament in 1979. I went for a walk across the bridge from Strasbourg in France to Kehl in Germany. I stopped in the middle of the bridge and I meditated. And I said: “Good Lord, there’s France. There’s Germany. If I’d stood on this bridge 30 years ago, at the end of World War II, and I’d said that’s the last war in the history of Europe, and in 30 years or so these countries will all be totally united.” I said “God, if somebody had said that then, they would have been sent to a psychiatrist.” But it has happened, I thought. And the European Union is the best example, I thought, in the history of the world, of conflict resolution. And when you think of the century we’ve just left, the first half of it was the worst in the history of the world. Two world wars, 50 million human beings slaughtered. Yet the second half those countries are all united now. How did they do it – should be studied, and that’s what I did of course. When you look at the three principles at the heart of the European Union those are the same three principles at the heart of our agreement in Northern Ireland, and those are the same three principles that will solve conflict anywhere in the world. That’s why I think the major countries in the world should now come together and send those principles to areas of conflict.

What are the principles? Number one principle: respect for difference. As I’ve already said all conflict is about difference. Race, religion or nationality. Difference is an accident of birth. It’s not something we should fight about. It’s something we should respect. First principle. Second principle of the European Union is institutions that do that. Council of ministers, all countries are there. The European Commission, all countries are there. The European Parliament, all countries are there. The institutions that do that. And then the third principle, the most important one, which I call the healing process, is that they work together in their common interests instead of fighting one another. Working together on their common interests. The social and economic development of Europe. In other words they spill their sweat and not their blood. And as they work together they’ve broken down the barriers of centuries. And the new Europe has evolved, and it’s still evolving.

Now when you look at that, that’s the philosophy of the founding fathers of the United States, which I first learned when I went to the grave of Abraham Lincoln and saw it written there in Latin on his grave. E pluribus unum … From many we are one. In other words the essence of our unity is respect for our diversity. That’s the essence of peace. You look at our agreement in Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement, you’ll find the same three principles.

In this working out these principles were there other inspirational characters as well? I believe that you have looked at Martin Luther King.

John Hume: When I was growing up in Northern Ireland we suffered very, very serious discrimination. In housing. In jobs. And voting rights. And the result of that was very serious poverty. In the 1960s I was lucky that I’d been educated and when I came back I was much inspired at that time by Martin Luther King’s leadership for civil rights. And of course we started the civil rights movement on our own streets here in the city of Derry. To create equality of treatment for all sections of our people and it was a very important factor in improving our situation here. You take the city of Derry alone, it was the worst example of the old Northern Ireland in discrimination. The Unionist people, largely the Protestant population, were one third of the population, yet they governed the city by a system of gerrymandering. And they controlled public housing and many public jobs as well. And of course as a result of that there was a very serious housing problem.

The Catholic population, who would have been known as Nationalist Irish, were 70% of the population. But they were all in one district and that one district elected eight councillors. The Unionists, the Protestant people, were in two districts. 30% of the population in two separate districts and each district elected six councillors. So they won every election 12-8 and they were in control of public housing.

And when I was first elected one of my major things in my campaign was to fight to get housing taken out of the hands of local government and an independent housing authority set up. That was one of my first great achievements. Jim Callaghan, the late Jim Callaghan, who was then Home Secretary of Britain, came and visited our streets and I told him that housing was our most serious existing problem and he agreed with me as he saw it on our streets. And he phoned me a week later and told me that he was doing what I asked, that the Northern Ireland government was being told to set up an independent housing executive to transform our housing situation. And of course that’s what has happened. Northern Ireland housing executive has done an outstanding job in providing public housing for working class people right across Northern Ireland. And it’s still doing a great job.

People here are very proud of you. Many people have spoken very proudly of the work that you have done for the people. How is that to receive that? Do you feel that people are grateful or is that something you’d rather not talk about?

… without the support of the people I couldn’t have done anything.

John Hume: Obviously I was very honoured by the support that I have received from the people of Northern Ireland, because without the support of the people I couldn’t have done anything. The truth of democracy is that you can’t achieve anything if the people do not support you. And of course one of the major things of our civil rights movement, starting the civil rights movement and then starting the Social Democratic and Labour Party, we couldn’t have achieved anything without the massive support of the people. And that very strongly strengthened me and my colleagues in bringing about the necessary changes in Northern Ireland.

Do you think that there are any similarities with the negotiation process and the peace process in South Africa and their work to find a truth and a reconciliation commission.

John Hume: I think that there’s a strong similarity between the situation in South Africa and the situation in Northern Ireland because the mentality that existed in South Africa, what I call the Afrikaner mindset was the mindset that the Unionist population had in Northern Ireland. They rightly wished to protect their identity, I would have no objection to that, but their method of protecting their identity was holding all power in their own hands. Like in this city they were in minority to govern the city. Similar to the Afrikaner mindset and my challenge to that mindset was that it’s people that have rights not territory. And when people are divided the only way to resolve their differences is by agreement, and of course by democracy as well, and that was part of our whole civil rights movement to bring that Afrikaner mindset to an end and we succeeded in doing so. And of course we learned a lot from the experience of South Africa as well.

Do you think there is a need for a truth and reconciliation commission here in Northern Ireland?

John Hume: I think that any organisation that is positive about our future and remembers the wrong things of our past in a manner to ensure that nobody will ever go back to those past things would be very positive, any movement and organisation. And of course would strengthen enormously our philosophy of peace, reconciliation and justice. And of course also strengthen the fact that that philosophy should be of assistance to other areas of the world that might need it.

One of the aspects of the peace prize at the time 1998 was that the Nobel Committee wanted you to be a shining light, an inspiration to other peace movements in the world and to other people who are working with peace. Do you feel that we are seeing a progress towards more people wanting to work within the peace movement?

John Hume: I think there’s absolutely no doubt that the vast majority of the people in the world want to see a world of peace. But as I’ve already said we’re now in a position given that we’re living in a much smaller world today. We’re in a stronger position to shape that world and to ensure that there’s a world of total peace with no war or conflict. But in order to make sure that that happens, as I’ve already said, the major countries of the world should come together and take the necessary steps to ensure that there would no longer be any war or any conflict. Because when there is a danger of a war or conflict starting anywhere they should be there to send the philosophy that would not only prevent that from happening but cure the problem that would lead to it happening.

You must have had a large amount of energy when you were sitting for hours negotiating and trying to make the point about peace together with people who maybe were saying “No, not that way”. How did you get all that energy? What kept you going?

John Hume: What kept me going me was the common sense of our approach because when people were sitting round the same table talking about their differences it’s rather more positive than shouting at one another and never meeting and using violence against one another. So dialogue was crucially important. And the philosophy of that dialogue was very important. Difference, I’ve always said, is an accident of birth. Nobody chose to be born into any community therefore it’s not something we should fight about. Difference is something we should respect. And that’s an argument you can’t say no to.

Thank you very much.

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