Friday, June 18

John Hume Was a Politician, Not a Saint

Fierce criticism has been reserved for leaders in Dublin, London, and Belfast, whether Ireland’s former leader Leo Varadkar for his apparent naïveté, Theresa May or Boris Johnson for playing with the fire of Brexit, or the DUP’s Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill for being unable to rise above their provincial prejudices, as Hume, McGuinness, Paisley, Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, and Hume’s fellow Nobel Prize winner David Trimble were perceived to have done before them. The underlying fear is an old one: What if the politicians who have replaced Hume and others are not up to the job?

Such sentimentality is understandable. Sometimes new leaders really do destroy the work of the giants that came before them. Yet the perception that the great leaders of old were unsullied by the provincialism of today does not often stand up to scrutiny. Helmut Kohl, for example, reportedly complained that Angela Merkel was “breaking my Europe,” but today such attitudes have been replaced by a new fear: that the Europe Merkel created will soon miss her steadying hand.

A great lesson of Hume’s life is that things are not so simple. He argued that identities were complex, not fixed—as he noted, though he was not a unionist, his part of Northern Ireland had closer links to Glasgow, in Scotland, than Dublin. He argued that Irish history was not the simple story that folklore suggested—of Ireland whole and free until 1920, when it was split by the British. Instead, he argued that it had long been an island of division, and that the key to peace was to acknowledge this. “The first thing we have to do sounds like a contradiction,” he explained. “We must accept diversity. The essence of unity … is the acceptance of diversity.”

There is a diversity of opinion about Hume too. Some see in him a fateful legitimization of Republican terror by entering into dialogue with McGuinness and Adams, however much he loathed the Irish Republican Army and its violence. Others see a man who may have despised that terror but who realized that the only way to peace was to bring them to the table. For many he is a hero, for others a complex figure who inspires mixed feelings.

History is complicated and nostalgia a seductive liar, as the former U.S. diplomat George Ball once remarked. Today’s Northern Ireland is a place that Hume envisaged and succeeded in creating. It is at peace and free to choose its own future. It is better than the one it replaced. But it also remains beset by deep problems. To solve them, the new generation of political leaders in Northern Ireland and beyond would be wise to look to the vision, strategic patience, and politicking that saw Hume’s vision triumph.

But it would not be sacrilege to point out that some of today’s problems are the inevitable consequences of the stubborn realities that Hume’s necessarily imperfect vision could not solve. When giants die they are sanctified, but they do not often become giants by being saints. As Hume would have acknowledged, life is more complicated.

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Tom McTague is a London-based staff writer at The Atlantic, and co-author of Betting the House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.

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