John Hume had a prophetic vision of peace. Image: McBride/Mirrorpix via Getty Images
Twenty-five years ago this week, Northern Ireland was on the brink of change. Seemingly intractable, the Troubles had been tearing lives apart for 30 years. More than 3,500 people had been killed, more than 47,500 injured. Nobody in the north of Ireland escaped unaffected. But in 1998, there was a tentative sense that talks might finally be getting somewhere. Children sang for a brighter future outside Hillsborough Castle as inside the political parties thrashed out details of the treaty that would usher in a new era. Perhaps imperfect, the peace achieved by the Good Friday Agreement was at least a chance to put civil war behind us. Many brave, dedicated individuals got us there – from both sides of the Northern Irish conflict, from the UK and Irish governments, from civil society – but few fought as long or as hard to take the gun out of Irish politics as John Hume.
The leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), then the largest nationalist party, would later be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside his Ulster Unionist Party opposite number David Trimble.
I was 16 years old, a schoolgirl in Belfast when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. I vividly remember the enormous swell of optimism. To paraphrase the great Northern Irish songwriter Neil Hannon, capturing the moment in song, it felt like the sun rising. But in the Hume household, says his daughter Áine Abbott, the reaction was more muted.
“Everybody was full of hope, and very uncertain,” says Abbott. “Because there’d been a few ‘almost-theres’, you know? I suppose when I think back on it, there was huge relief at home. But also there was a level of exhaustion. So there probably wasn’t the same kind of elation. Dad kept saying, this is just the start. And we still have a long way to go.”
How right Hume was. As we mark the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland remains divided; peace yet fragile. The Assembly hasn’t sat in over a year, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) refusing to share power with Sinn Féin amid the ramifications of Brexit.
It’s an uncertain atmosphere for a celebration, but in Hume’s hometown of Derry, the Playhouse theatre is staging a musical drama honouring the life of its influential peace-making son, and his wife Pat. Hume – Beyond Belief: The Life and Mission of John & Pat Hume will be staged in the city’s landmark Guildhall, as well as being streamed for an online audience.
The show is an opportunity, says playwright Damian Gorman, to remember a man who never gave up hope. “I know that there were times when it must have been a thankless task,” he says. “There were definitely times when it seemed hopeless. And yet this particular individual kept going.”
There’s a verse from the show that puts it well, he adds: ‘He not only stood his ground, but strained with grace, pushing the whole world forward at a snail’s pace, a Sisyphus doing what his calling bid, knowing a thing that none of the rest of us did.’
“He had that kind of prophetic vision of peace,” Gorman says. “This isn’t a great time at the moment. But Hume seemed to know – even when there wasn’t much light around – he seemed to know what the ingredients of light were and how it could be put together.”
Condensing John Hume’s momentous life – and through it, the story of Northern Ireland – into one evening (while ensuring he wasn’t inflicting “two hours of purgatory” on audiences) was a challenge, Gorman admits, especially having lived through those times himself. But there were a few crucial events that gave him a way in. One such moment came in 1993, at the funeral of one of the eight people killed by the UDA in the Greysteel massacre, itself a retaliation to the Shankill Road bombing in which the IRA killed 10 people. “It was feeding itself. And Hume just was emptied by all that,” says Gorman.
Hume had been facing criticism for his willingness to engage with Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA-affiliated Sinn Féin. At the funeral, mourner Finuala Wyer, a relative of one of the victims of the mass shooting, approached him. “I don’t know what he was bracing himself for, but she put her hand out and said, ‘Last night we were standing around my father’s coffin and we prayed for him and we prayed for you. That you wouldn’t give up. That you would keep pushing,’” Gorman says. “He took his glasses off and he broke down. Here was someone coming at him with kindness and an extraordinary, generous understanding of what he was trying to do, which was to open a door for peace in the north of Ireland. That’s an incredibly human moment.”
Gorman’s image of Hume as the man who never gave up on peace is one shared by many across Ireland. In 2010 Hume came out on top of a public poll by national broadcaster RTÉ to find the greatest person in Ireland’s history, beating Michael Collins, Mary Robinson, James Connolly and Bono to the top spot. Whenever he received any such accolade, Hume was quick to credit the contribution of his wife, who offered him sanctuary, support and advice throughout his political career.
In fact, according to their daughter, it was Pat Hume who was the source of the SDLP leader’s legendary resilience and hope. “Dad had an enormous work ethic and a huge belief in what he was doing, but he didn’t have a great understanding of self-care,” explains Abbott. “Dad would have burned himself out years ago, if Mum hadn’t been there to say, ‘this might take a long time and don’t be disheartened’. She had great stamina, and she was always able to see something positive. She kept him hopeful.”
That’s just part of the reason Abbott is glad to see her parents get equal billing in the play, though. There’s also recognition for a broader story about the lives of women during the Troubles. “It’s important to hear the story of women in those years,” she explains. “Holding the space for normal life to continue when all the mayhem was going on around – that was work that was largely done by women. But none of it was easy for any woman rearing kids or living their lives. So it’s really good to have that perspective. The story would’ve been so incomplete without it.”
John Hume died in August 2020, his funeral one of those affected by strict Covid regulations. His beloved wife Pat died in September 2021. They left an extraordinary legacy in Derry, Northern Ireland and beyond. Despite the current difficulties, Abbott continues their heritage of hope.
“One of my dad’s catchphrases was, ‘you can’t eat a flag’,” she says. Ultimately, there’s more to people in the north of Ireland than conflict. “We’re so much bigger than this. And thankfully, with migration, we’re beginning to become more diverse. My dad really believed in the power of diversity as a way of building resilience. And I think that’s been a positive thing. It’s been slower here than in other places, but it’s happening. That gives me hope. We can get very stuck in our own story here. But people are coming with new stories and different stories and other stories of overcoming adversity. It’ll maybe broaden our perspective.”
Hume – Beyond Belief: The Life and Mission of John & Pat Hume is at the Guildhall in Derry, Northern Ireland from March 31-April 7, streaming online on April 7. derryplayhouse.co.uk
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