I met John Hume quite a few times in the last ten years of his public life in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. There were the awful moments and the extraordinary moments. I was sent up to report on the awful ‘trick or treat’ sectarian killings in Greysteel, Co Derry, where Catholics were mowed down in a bar by a Loyalist gang.
At the funeral, a mother of one of those killed approached Hume at the graveyard and told him to carry on his work for peace. He was so overcome with emotion that he wept openly.
Later, he recalled, he was the butt of a lot of criticism and under considerable pressure during that period. Everything – the killings, the grief, the pressure – came to a head at that moment.
The pressure, of course, was continuing criticism for his relentless quest to bring communities together, to replace conflict with dialogue, and to bring a lasting peace to Northern Ireland.
He himself said that meant talking to anybody and everybody. And of course, that had included – secretly – talks with Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin for the previous six or seven years.
He was being attacked mercilessly for having the temerity to ‘sip with the devil’ by anti-Republican media organisations in the south and north – including columnists in the Sunday Independent.
There were highs too. The Good Friday Agreement in April 1988 was the pinnacle, bringing together everything he had campaigned for during a long political life. His deputy in the SDLP Séamus Mallon described it as Sunningdale for Slow Learners, referring to the earlier attempt at power-sharing in 1974 (it was collapsed by strident Loyalist opposition and widespread strikes).
Of course, Hume was instrumental in Sunningdale too.
For more on the life of John Hume, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.
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