John Hume swept into town the other day to collect an award, to be congratulated for his long years of working for justice in Northern Ireland, and to raise the profile of the province’s Social Democrat and Labor Party, which he helped found a quarter-century ago. He traveled without entourage, without sycophantic Boswells, without celebrities at his elbow. Mr. Hume would not make good material for one of Maureen Dowd’s columns: There is nothing slick about him; his dress is nondescript; he has dirt under his fingernails; he is given to earnest lectures rather than to light banter.
He is, in other words, the antithesis of Gerry Adams, the American media’s favorite socialist. Both are brilliant men; both have exhibited great personal courage. But look not for Mr. Hume in slick magazines. He has yet to win an invitation to mix it up with Wall Street’s mega-capitalists. He is a quiet man who looks like he has borne more than his share of life’s burdens. There is nothing deliciously dangerous about him, nothing to excite the chattering classes. When asked to talk about his life, rather than the peace process, he demurs. He won’t talk about himself. No wonder he seems so unfashionable.
Yet Mr. Hume is the man who persuaded Mr. Adams, Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army to give up the armed struggle to free Northern Ireland from Britain. Without Mr. Hume’s years of constitutional agitation, his wellspring of moral force and his street credibility-inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., he marched for civil rights in Northern Ireland in the 1960′s and suffered accordingly at the hands of police-there would be no healing in Northern Ireland.
His name ought to be better known, and his role in bringing peace ought to be celebrated in all the right places in town. And yet here was this distinguished member of the European Parliament sitting down to a modest breakfast to an audience consisting of Newsday ‘s Dennis Duggan, the New York Post ‘s irrepressible Steve Dunleavy and your dutiful correspondent. Not a bad group, yours truly excepted, but there wasn’t a microphone or a big-foot magazine writer in sight. Later in the day, Mr. Hume met with former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who mediated the Irish peace talks, and other more glamorous names in the Park Avenue headquarters of Mutual of America Insurance Company. Nevertheless, Mr. Hume’s visit lacked the rock-star hype that follows Mr. Adams when he arrives on these shores.
Too bad, for his is a voice that should be heard, for his message is universal. He tells of going to the European Parliament, then in Strasbourg, France, in 1979, and walking across a bridge into what was then West Germany. The crossing he made so easily was ground zero of Europe’s two attempts at continental suicide in this century’s first 50 years. But by the late 70′s, it was at peace and, indeed, it was where the onetime warring parties came together for an experiment that we now nonchalantly accept as the European Union.
“Who could have forecast that we would all be together in this way,” he said. “The message of the European Parliament is a message of peace. It is about creating institutions that respect differences among people.”
He has been trying to create those sorts of institutions in Northern Ireland for 30 years. When his party assumed political control in his native city of Derry, it began rotating the Mayor’s office between the Protestant and Catholic communities. (Like many other Irish and British cities, Derry’s Mayor has only symbolic duties.)
Now, with elections to the new assembly in Northern Ireland scheduled for June 25, Mr. Hume hopes to replicate those efforts throughout the scarred province. After years of ceaseless agitation, he wishes to put the past aside. Even the charming Mr. Dunleavy couldn’t get him to tell a tale of some childhood horror of growing up Catholic in Protestant-only Northern Ireland.
That Northern Ireland, he makes clear, is over. Without calling attention to it, he speaks of “old Northern Ireland” when talking, in careful generalities, of the place he has spent his life. “Let history,” he said, “judge the past.” His concern is the future, the beginning of what he calls “the healing process” in a province whose colonial-era religious divisions are not, shall we say, native to the soil.
Unlike your devoted correspondent, Mr. Hume is among the least embittered human beings on the planet. Versed in history and thoroughly aware of its scars, he is determined to ensure a new century of peace and social justice for a place that is pleading for both.
Watch him closely in the coming months. And remember that he is thinking about his walk across the bridge from France to West Germany in 1979.