Brexit Institute News

John Hume and Northern Ireland’s European Space

Anthony Soares (Centre for Cross Border Studies)

During one of the many television news items dedicated to reflecting on the importance of John Hume following his death, a journalist posed the question as to whether the city of Derry had been diminished by his loss. Derry – and indeed Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland – could only have been made lesser if John Hume had never lived. His life brought a new vitality, another dimension and, ultimately, a path to a resolution of a bitter conflict that would offer new beginnings. His efforts have only added to Derry and the wider world, and cannot be diminished with his passing unless the people of Northern Ireland are denied the space to imagine themselves, and which John Hume was instrumental in opening up to them.

While John Hume found inspiration in the United States for the civil rights movement he would help to lead in Northern Ireland, he also brought Europe and the European Union to Northern Ireland, as well as Northern Ireland to Europe and the European Union. His election in 1979 as one of Northern Ireland’s three MEPs was not only a marker of his personal political success, he went on to make it a vehicle to transport others to Brussels and Strasbourg in order to hear directly from those in positions of influence and to be heard by them. Crucially, Hume sought to bring a diversity of people from all walks of life in Northern Ireland to the corridors of power as well as the eateries of Brussels and Strasbourg, encouraging them through conversation to find out about others inhabiting this shared European space. This often meant conversations between those who, while having come from the same place, would have found it difficult if not impossible to speak to each other when “at home”, precisely because “home” was a contested space that could not easily accommodate mutually exclusive and inimical nationalist/republican and unionist/loyalist identities.

In Brussels and Strasbourg John Hume worked tirelessly with his fellow MEPs, including the Reverend Ian Paisley, to maximise the benefits of European Union membership for those who lived back “home” – in a place that for the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party would always have to remain an integral part of the United Kingdom, while for Hume should peacefully become part of a united Ireland. Their deep-rooted differences did not prevent them from cooperating for a common good, and it was the accommodation of difference that John Hume regarded as one of the essential foundations of the European Union, as he made a point of noting when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize jointly awarded to him and David Trimble in 1998:

“All conflict is about difference, whether the difference is race, religion or nationality. The European visionaries decided that difference is not a threat, difference is natural. Difference is of the essence of humanity. Difference is an accident of birth and should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace – respect for diversity”.

Hume’s vision, which saw the European Union as “the best example in the history of the world of conflict resolution”, was instrumental in guiding us towards a Good Friday Agreement that sought to respectfully and peacefully accommodate difference. The 1998 Agreement, allied to Northern Ireland’s increasing involvement in the wider European panorama has been visibly transformative. However, if the new landscape created by Brexit is not properly navigated, we risk closing Northern Ireland off from the wider spaces Hume had helped to open up, trapping us once again in a “home” that is hostile to the differences that can only become increasingly evident and conflictual as those who inhabit it turn inwards, either voluntarily or through force of circumstance. This is a destination to be avoided at all costs, but now without the guidance of John Hume.

Anthony Soares is the director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies

Image credit: John Hume, leader of the SDLP, 1995. Bobbie Hanvey, photographer, via a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

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