Democracy Human Rights Left Politics Northern Ireland Political Philosophy Poverty Scottish Independence

John Hume – Man of Peace.

Rest in peace, as your life was for, and gifted us peace, John Hume. 

Ungagged are reproducing this extraordinary speech by John Hume as a lesson in how to appeal to politics, and to how to adhere to the principle of non-violence in the face of hate and vicious division. 

Hume made this speech after a year that saw Northern Ireland reach a terrifying turning point. A year that saw a dirty protest in the Maze Prison turn to hunger strike and death. A year that saw an upsurge in political and sectarian violence meted out on an undeserving majority. A year when the Reverend Ian Paisley, in reaction to the killing by the, IRA of the Official Unionist MP for Belfast South, William Bradford, created a new Loyalist armed group he called “The Third Force.” 

{John Hume leader of SDLP (left) and Democratic Unionist Party leader Rev Ian Paisley after the result of the Northern Ireland referendum in Belfast. An overwhelming 71.1 voted Yes. EDI Photo by Chris Bacon/PA (Photo by Chris Bacon – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images}

These prescient words were of condemnation for the racking up of tensions by the extremes on both sides. Words that spoke against the sacrifice of young people who faced dangerous, violent lives in poverty. 

It was in a dreadful, murderous, volatile context that John Hume, leader of the, SDLP, spoke at his party conference on 14th November 1981.

“I would say this to the Protestants of Northern Ireland: many among you can have little satisfaction in seeing the steady rise in the tyrannical dominance over you of a man whose name in every country in the world has become a byword for bigotry, demagoguery and obscurantism. Is Paisleyism in any sense consistent with those great Protestant values of individual freedom, free speech, civil and religious liberty of which you are so rightly proud? Is not what is being said and done in your name in Northern Ireland a gross and unworthy abuse of everything you stand for?

The essence of the appeal of unionism is that it is the only protection of Protestants in Ireland. Is it? Has it not instead seriously weakened your integrity and become a profound source politically and intellectually of real danger to the deepest values of the Protestant tradition in lIreland? Is it not time to consider that there are other ways, not only to protect the integrity of your tradition but to develop it and become a positive leaven in Irish society, challenging its uniformity? Is it not time to recognize that other ways do not involve conflict with your neighbours on this island but a fruitful partnership which recognizes the richness of difference and diversity? Surely not to consider other ways is to consign your own future, your children’s future, our future, to despair, and surely you have no more right than we do to adopt such a nihilistic course. 

Must you – and now absurdly – permit your leaders to demand all power, exclusively and forever? 

For ourselves, we abjure any ‘solution’ in which there would be winners and losers, conquerors and vanquished, victory and defeat. So should you. Face reality with us and let us together be grateful that we have an opportunity to do so before catastrophe – which loomed over us earlier this year – overwhelms us all.

All we demand is that you and your leaders sit down and negotiate our future with us and the British and Irish governments. For our part, we would insist that the results of such talks would have to be ratified in two separate referenda, one in the North, the other in the South. That is a more secure guarantee of your rights than the cold and increasingly inconvenient device of the ’73 Act. The principle of consent will be truly respected. We have to live together in the future. I know that many of you do not fully grasp my words. I know that you do not realize that when we say that we are proposing an ‘Agreed Ireland’ we mean those words absolutely literally. We mean an ‘Agreed Ireland’ which you would decisively help to shape. 

I ask you to reflect on our words because they do offer us the prospect of a future together within the limits of what is really possible.

The nationalists of the North see in the Provisionals’ activity the destruction of the integrity of their own political values, a direct attack on the real meaning of Irish unity. We also see in these parts of the community where the Provisional IRA are most active, the spread of a foul social cancer. The coherence of society at the best of times is both deep-rooted and fragile. Its roots, the shared principles of respect for life, liberty and order, can go deep but they must be tended and watered assiduously and incessantly. There are now communities in Northern Ireland where these roots have not alone been neglected, but have been hacked away and poisoned by the Provisional IRA’s campaign against fundamental human rights to live until God calls us. What has followed is a gross distortion of moral values in society, the promotion of the pornography of death and nihilism on our gable walls and the deep corruption of the young. The SDLP will always recognize this evil for what it is and call it by its name: murder.

We say to the Provisionals you are not Irish republicans, you are extremists who have dishonoured and are dishonouring the deepest ideals of the Irish people. Can we remind you yet again that those whose inheritance you so falsely claim, laid down their arms in 1916 lest they cause any undue suffering to their Irish people.

We as a party remain committed to a noble art – politics. Politics has been descried as many things. Its essence is the reconciliation at differences – the greatest challenge facing the people of this community today. ‘No man is good enough to govern another,’ said Lincoln ‘without that other man’s consent.’ The challenge of building a consensus in Ireland is the greatest challenge in particular to this new generation, a challenge that is all the more exciting because of the failure of previous generations to meet it. It is a challenge that will only be met by patient political negotiation. Patient political negotiation is unspectacular, it has no dramatic appeal.

The alternative – the use of violence disguised as military patriotism has misled  many young idealists. Its monuments are mangled and broken bodies, prison walls and cemeteries. 

Patient political effort will not fill graves – violence will. 

Patient political effort will not fill jails with young people. Violence will. 

Patient political effort will not prevent job creation in a community starved of employment, particularly for young people. Violence will. 

Patient political effort and non-violence have won only achievements and benefits that we can claim over the past decade.

Violence has made the underlying problem – division – more difficult to solve.

Many young people have joined us in the task of politics, the difficult task of building mutual respect and understanding, which forms the basis of true peace and freedom. 

We need many more. In the 1980s the true patriot is the builder, not the destroyer. 1981 has been a year of many Iessons for many people. The SDLP has come through 1981, We hope that we shall never see its like again. Yet we have emerged with renewed strength. 


We can only go forward.”

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