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Biographies of People Prominent During 'the Troubles'

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Text and Research: Brendan Lynn ... Edited and Compiled: Martin Melaugh
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Hume, John
Name: Hume, John
Date of Birth: 18 January 1937
Roles / Positions: Civil Rights Activist; Politician; Independent (Stormont) MP; Founding Member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP); SDLP (Stormont) MP; Leader of the SDLP 1979-2001; SDLP MEP 1979-2004; SDLP MP 1983-2004; SDLP MLA 1998-2000
Titles:Nobel Laureate

Brief Biography:

Born in Derry and educated at St Columb's College, Derry, and St Patrick's College, Maynooth, John Hume graduated with a BA. honours degree before beginning work as a teacher. Before he became involved in active politics at the end of the 1960s, Hume's profile in his native city of Derry had been raised by his participation in a number of community initiatives. For instance he had involved himself in the local Credit Union movement and had been one of the most prominent figures in the unsuccessful campaign aimed at ensuring the city became the site of Northern Ireland's second university. Frustrated and increasingly disillusioned with the apparent unwillingness of the Unionist government at Stormont to adequately address the growing calls from the minority community in Northern Ireland for a thorough programme of economic, political and social reform, Hume chose to participate in the civil rights campaign. Following violence at a civil rights march in Derry on 5 October 1968 he was elected on to the Derry Citizens' Action Committee as Vice-Chairman and attempted to try to ensure that future protests remained peaceful. This role allowed him to challenge and win a parliamentary seat, representing the Foyle constituency in the city (1969-72) in the Stormont election of February 1969.

In association with a number of others Hume then worked to try to establish a new opposition grouping to provide a more strident and vibrant opposition to the Unionist authorities. As a result he was to be one of the co-founders of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in August 1970. In his position as one of the leading members of the SDLP he participated in the negotiations in the period after the suspension of Stormont in 1972 aimed at producing a new political settlement for Northern Ireland. These were to culminate with the Sunningdale Agreement (1973) by which the party agreed to join a power-sharing executive to administer Northern Ireland, with a Council of Ireland also being established to help formalise relations between the administrations in Belfast and Dublin. In the subsequent elections for a Northern Ireland Assembly, Hume was to be elected as a member (1973-74) and once the Executive was formed took up the position of Minister of Commerce (January to May 1974).

In this role he had to face the economic problems caused by the loyalist strike of May 1974 aimed at bringing down the agreement reached at Sunningdale. The events of this period were to leave a lasting impression on Hume and after the failure of the Constitutional Convention (1975-76) Hume became convinced that an entirely fresh approach was needed. This soon became based on the view that a simple internal solution for Northern Ireland would not work. Instead an alternative had to be found which looked to bring outside influences to bear in order for them to encourage the search for an end to the political stalemate. For Hume this meant involving politicians not only in the Republic of Ireland but in the United States of America and Europe. Such views soon brought him into conflict with senior members of the SDLP and these differences were really only solved when he became party Leader in November 1979 (1979-2001).

Once Hume took on the leadership of the SDLP he attempted to press ahead with his strategy of forging closer links with the political establishment in Dublin in addition to those on the international stage. In the pursuit of these aims Hume was to benefit from his growing profile as one of three Northern Ireland Members of the European Parliament (MEP; 1979-2004) and as a Westminster MP (1983-present). As a result under Hume the SDLP refused to take part in political initiatives within the north of Ireland which lacked this wider dimension and so refused to take part in either the Constitutional Conference in 1980 or the Northern Ireland Assembly of which he was to be a member (1982-86). Instead the SDLP chose to participate in the New Ireland Forum (NIF) (1983-84) in Dublin which sought to encourage constitutional nationalism to produce a new framework by which Irish unity could be achieved. Developments elsewhere however gave the first indication that his attempt to bring international pressure to bear on the situation was at last making some headway. In 1985 the Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) was signed and received a positive response, particularly in America and Europe. But progress towards stability remained painfully slow in Northern Ireland and there was little indication of an end to the paramilitary campaigns which in turn negated against any political breakthrough.

In order to try to overcome these hurdles in 1988 Hume commenced a series of negotiations with representatives of the Republican movement, most notably with Gerry Adams, then President of Sinn Féin (SF). Although his decision was met by criticism from both outside and within the SDLP, Hume chose to persevere. In doing so he later justified his participation in these talks by stating that by the early 1990s they had laid the basis for developments in what soon became known as the 'Peace Process'. Elected to the Northern Ireland Forum in June 1996 he was then to lead his party in the multi-party discussions which finally commenced in September 1997. As such he was at the forefront of the efforts that were to produce the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in April 1998 and took part in campaigning for a 'Yes' vote in the in the subsequent referendum held in May 1998.

His role was later recognised in 1998 when along with David Trimble, then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In June 1998 Hume was elected to the new Northern Ireland Assembly (1998-2000) and again participated in the talks that then followed to allow for the full implementation of the GFA. When in November 1999 the Northern Ireland Executive was established he chose not to accept the position allotted to his party, namely that of Deputy First Minister, and this was taken as evidence of his desire to cut back on his political commitments. It therefore came as no surprise when he announced his decision to retire from the Assembly in August 2000. With increasing health problems, a year later in September 2001, he chose to resign as Leader of the SDLP. Finally in February 2004, Hume announced that he would be standing down both as an MP and MEP.

Book References:

Elliott, Sydney. and Flackes, W.D. (1999), Northern Ireland: A Political Directory 1968-1999. Belfast: Blackstaff Press.
Hennessey, Thomas. (2000), The Northern Ireland Peace Process: Ending the Troubles. London: Gill & Macmillan.
Murray, Gerard. (1998), John Hume and the SDLP: Impact and Survival in Northern Ireland. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.
McRedmond, Louis. (ed.) (1998), Modern Irish Lives: Dictionary of 20th-century Biography. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.
Ramsden, John (ed.) (2002), The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century British Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Routledge, Paul. (1997), John Hume: A Biography. London: HarperCollins.
White, Barry. (1984), John Hume: Statesman of the Troubles. Belfast: Blackstaff Press.

Web Sources:

[Entry written by B.Lynn - November 2002; updated June 2004]

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