22 January 2006

N. Ireland laureate seeks to raise moderates' profile

Boston Globe

Nobelist Hume paying visits to US cities

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff
January 22, 2006

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His health has been better, and he says his memory isn't what it used to be. But when called upon, John Hume, the Nobel laureate, can still rustle up a good story or a few verses of ''The Town I Loved So Well," the bittersweet lament for his beloved hometown of Derry.

In visiting Boston last week, Hume marked something of a triumphant if understated return to the place where he ventured some 30 years ago, looking for American help in resolving the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Ostensibly, Hume was in town to give a keynote speech at Boston University to commemorate the birthday of one of his heroes, Martin Luther King Jr. Throughout the Troubles, a portrait of King dominated Hume's office.

But Hume's first public visit to the United States in several years, which continues this week in New York and Washington, also represents an effort by moderate Irish nationalists to raise their profile in a country where they have been overshadowed for the past decade by Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. Among Hume's stops here was a fund-raiser for his Social Democratic and Labor Party, hosted Tuesday by Thomas P. O'Neill III, the former lieutenant governor and son of the late US speaker of the House.

The SDLP, which Hume helped found in 1970, has been one of the most notable casualties of the peace process, overtaken by Sinn Fein as the dominant voice for Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland. For a quarter-century, the SDLP was the undisputed leader of most nationalists who aspired to unity with the Irish Republic but opposed violence as a means of achieving it. But as the IRA gradually shrank from the scene and violence decreased, Sinn Fein has raced past the SDLP.

Since 1998, when the SDLP won the largest number of votes in elections for the then-new Northern Ireland Assembly, following the approval of the Good Friday Agreement that encoded Hume's vision of mutual tolerance and equality, the political fortunes of Sinn Fein and the SDLP have flip-flopped. In last year's British parliamentary elections, Sinn Fein got 24 percent of the vote, while the SDLP received about 17 percent. The reversal of fortunes is especially ironic because no one helped Sinn Fein come in from the cold more than Hume, who remained a pacifist throughout the conflict.

Part of the SDLP's decline has been attributed to Hume's 2001 retirement as party leader. But it is part of a wider trend in which moderate parties from both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland have lost ground to Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party led by the Rev. Ian Paisley.

Still, the SDLP's slide has been less precipitous than that of the moderate Ulster Unionist Party which was led by David Trimble, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Hume in 1998. In last year's parliamentary elections, reflecting Protestant unionist disenchantment over the Good Friday Agreement and the IRA's continued activity, the DUP took nearly 34 percent of the vote, twice that of the Ulster Unionists. The drubbing led to Trimble's resignation. In contrast, Hume's successor as party leader, Mark Durkan, surprised many by holding on to Hume's seat in Parliament.

Hume, who will be joined in New York and Washington by Durkan and deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell, said he isn't surprised by the SDLP's resiliency. Borrowing a phrase that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams once infamously uttered about the IRA, Hume had this to say to those who have consigned moderate nationalists to the dustbin of history: ''We haven't gone away, you know."

Hume, who retired from politics in 2004, has been less visible in recent years because of health problems. But he believes moderate nationalists will remain relevant because the Good Friday Agreement, on which the future of Northern Ireland is based, ''is really what the SDLP has argued for 35 years."

He said it was poignant returning to Boston, ''because this is where I first came, years ago, looking for help." He became friendly with Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Tip O'Neill, then speaker, who in turn got President Reagan to persuade Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain to work more closely with the Irish government to end the Troubles.

Hume said the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, giving the Dublin government a say in the affairs of Northern Ireland in return for agreeing that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom until a majority living there voted otherwise, was a landmark because it cemented the Irish-British partnership that ended the conflict and showed that US diplomacy could help. Hume and then-mayor Raymond L. Flynn formed a trade partnership between Boston and Derry that Hume said has generated more than $40 million in sales.

Adams and other charismatic Irish republican leaders get most of the attention in the United States these days, but it was Hume's opinion that mattered most when it came to getting Washington power brokers to put ending the Troubles on the US policy agenda. President Clinton made it a central part of his foreign policy. Hume convinced Kennedy, who convinced Clinton, that giving Adams a visa to visit the United States in 1994, over British objections, would show the benefits of entering the political mainstream. An IRA cease-fire followed, ushering in a period of relative peace and stability.

Hume, who turned 69 on Wednesday, can still riff a good story. He has great ones about Paisley, the fundamentalist preacher-politician whose ''Ulster Says No" mantra has been widely viewed as obstructionist.

''I once told Paisley that if the word no was taken from the English language, he'd be speechless. And Paisley said back to me, 'No, I wouldn't.' "

Hume's wife, Patricia, tells a more revealing story, hinting at her husband's conciliatory powers. She said that for years, when Hume, Paisley and John Taylor of the Ulster Unionists were the three Northern Ireland representatives elected to the European Parliament, Paisley and Taylor were not on speaking terms.

''John was the intermediary," she recalled. ''The two unionists wouldn't talk to each other, but they'd talk to John, and he would relay what they said to each other."

Elizabeth Shannon, director of BU's international visitors program and wife of a former US ambassador to Ireland, said Hume's role as a moral force in Northern Ireland -- making tolerance and nonviolence part of a political culture that once regarded such values with derision -- was underappreciated as many rushed to welcome Sinn Fein into the mainstream.

''I think what you're seeing unfold in Northern Ireland today is largely John's vision," she said.

Still, Hume's American friends and supporters are not under any illusions when it comes to upstaging Sinn Fein.

''We'll be lucky if we raise $6,000 or $7,000 tonight," Tom O'Neill said Tuesday, standing in his downtown public relations office as about 30 people nibbled on snacks and chatted with John and Pat Hume. ''Sinn Fein can hold a fund-raiser at Florian Hall and take in $30,000."

O'Neill, whose sister, Rosemary, is hosting an SDLP fund-raiser in Washington on Wednesday, said he will continue to raise money for the SDLP, chiefly out of loyalty to Hume. O'Neill said his father had three heroes: Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Hume.

''This guy is a giant," O'Neill said, pointing to Hume across the room. ''He's the Martin Luther King Jr. of Ireland."

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