Oh Johnny Boy!

In the March 2004 issue of Fortnight magazine, Queen’s Professor, Adrian Guelke, assesses the legacy of John Hume. Prof. Guelke argues that the Ulster Unionists’ over-reliance on Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and under-reliance on the SDLP as partners in Government, meant that the opportunity of government from the middle ground was lost. Meanwhile, while Hume may have been willing to pay the price for the inclusion of Sinn Fein in the Government of Northern Ireland, it was not inevitable that his successor had to maintain this, to the cost of Sinn Fein eclipsing the SDLP as the largest Nationalist party.

Through most of the troubles, Northern Ireland’s two best-known political figures in the rest of the world were Ian Paisley and John Hume. The negative headlines Paisley’s ranting attracted were counterbalanced by praise for Hume’s rational prescriptions for the ills of a deeply divided society. He got scant thanks for that within Northern Ireland, where many people not entirely unreasonably got a little sick of his constant repetition of the same message, the Single Transferable Speech, as it was satirised. But outside Northern Ireland Hume was widely admired as a tireless promoter of political accommodation between the province’s warring communities. To editorial writers in countless countries he stood out as a consistent standard bearer of the basic liberal values of tolerance and respect for different national identities. Yet within the province Hume has always remained a contentious and somewhat despised figure, even if the reasons for the contempt have changed somewhat over time. Thus, when Barry White published his biography of Hume in 1984 and sub-titled it ‘statesman of the troubles’, the oxymoron inspired derision rather than approval among the province’s political commentators.

That Hume encountered unionist hostility was not surprising since constitutional Nationalism posed a challenge to the legitimacy of the status quo as great, if not greater than, republican violence. On top of that unionists never forgave Hume for his role iin the civil rights movement or accepted that they bore any responsibility for the descent from street protest into the troubles. But Hume also inspired intense dislike among groups that occupied the middle ground politically between Northern Ireland’s sectarian blocs. Socialists (of a non-nationalist disposition) contested the SDLP’s claim to be either a social democratic or a labour party. They felt that the SDLP stood in the way of their dream of a unified working class transcending sectarianism. On top of that Hume was seen as having a special personal responsibility for displacing and sidelining the socialist-inclined members of the party, such as Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin. He was accused of bringing about the greening of the SDLP, thereby justifying the taunt the SDLP consisted of no more than Green Tories, little different from their Orange counterparts among the unionists. (Green in those days carried no ecological connotations.) Among liberals, particularly in the Alliance Party, what was most objectionable about John Hume was his assumption of the mantle of moderation. That after all was their pitch and they resented the competition. Verbal sparring along these lines continues to this day between Alliance and the SDLP.

During the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, the SDLP’s dominance among anti-unionist parties was the prime cause of the party’s unpopularity among the supporters of rival ideologies. The peace process resulted in a new charge being levelled against the party and more specifically John Hume. This is that by paving the way for Sinn Fein to join the political mainstream, he opened the door to the SDLP’s displacement as the province’s largest nationalist party. Whereas during the troubles, the party’s electoral success was the cause of annoyance, now it is its failure that can’t be forgiven. There remains little inclination to come to terms with the role that the behavioiur of the Ulster Unionist Party leadership played in this process. Here we need to go back to the letter Blair wrote to Trimble on the day that the Good Friday Agreement was proclaimed. The letter in effect promised Trimble that Blair would ensure Sinn Fein’s exclusion from government if there were to be no decommissioning, regardless of the attitude taken by the SDLP to the issue. Blair never delivered (or could deliver) on the promise implicit in the letter. But it meant that the UUP never sought to manage the peace process in co-operation with the SDLP and the opportunity for government from the middle ground was lost.

Reliance on Blair — his credibility was still intact then — was not the only reason for the UUP’s wrong-headed approach. It did not help that among Trimble’s advisers were to be found socialists who had given up on socialism once the Berlin Wall had come down and Southern Irish liberals who blamed Nationalism in all its forms for Northern Ireland’s problems. What the ex-socialists and Southern liberals had in common was a longstanding dislike of John Hume, which also extended to Seamus Mallon as coming from the same ‘green’ wing of the SDLP. The consequence was that the UUP never took up Mallon’s offer in November 1998 to exclude Sinn Fein from the Executive if the IRA failed to start decommissioning of its arsenal by May 2000. Some would argue that John Hume always accepted that the price of peace might involve the SDLP’s losing out to Sinn Fein, but that does not mean that it was inevitable or that he made it inevitable. As he bows out, the prophet deserves greater recognition in his own country.

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