Tributes paid after death of Northern Ireland politician John Hume

File photo. SDLP leader John Hume arrives at No.10 Downing Street for talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the Northern Ireland Good Friday peace talks crisis in 1998. John Hume died aged 83 years old on 3 August 2020. [Gerry Penny/EPA/EFE]

Tributes poured in Monday (3 August) from across the political spectrum following the death of John Hume, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending decades of deadly sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

The former leader of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) helped forge the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement in the British province after a conflict that left 3,500 people dead.

The 83-year-old Hume, who had suffered with dementia in his later years, died on Monday after a short illness, his family said.

A consistently moderate voice during the so-called Troubles, he shared the Nobel in 1998 with David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party for their cross-community efforts that culminated in the landmark peace deal between Belfast, Dublin and London.

The agreement shepherded in a new era for Northern Ireland after three decades of bloody strife between the largely Catholic nationalist community, who want to reunify with Ireland, and Protestant unionists who want to remain part of Britain.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed a “political giant”, while Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said: “He was one of the towering figures of Irish public life of the last century.

“His vision and tenacity saved this country.”

‘Political titan’

Hume had been largely out of the public spotlight since resigning as leader of the SDLP in 2001, citing ill health. He had been in the care of a nursing home in the Northern Irish city of Londonderry, where he was born.

“John was a husband, a father, a grandfather, a great-grandfather and a brother. He was very much loved, and his loss will be deeply felt by all his extended family,” a statement from his family said.

The SDLP, which he helped to found in 1970, said: “We all live in the Ireland he imagined — at peace and free to decide our own destiny.”

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster, leader of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, called Hume “a giant in Irish nationalism”.

“In our darkest days he recognised that violence was the wrong path (and) worked steadfastly to promote democratic politics,” she added.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair, who helped craft the 1998 peace deal, praised Hume as a “political titan” and “a visionary who refused to believe the future had to be the same as the past”.

“His contribution to peace in Northern Ireland was epic and he will rightly be remembered for it,” he added.

‘Grasped the challenge’

Born in the Northern Irish city and republican stronghold of Londonderry in 1937, Hume joined the province’s civil rights movement in the late 1960s as Catholics demanded equality in housing, voting and other issues.

He was elected to Northern Ireland’s parliament as an independent lawmaker, becoming a founding member of the SDLP in 1970, before later serving as a member of the European Parliament and then Britain’s House of Commons.

As the province’s peace process began to progress in the 1990s with several ceasefires by the Irish Republic Army (IRA) paramilitary group, Hume worked to engage US politicians, notably Bill Clinton.

Gerry Adams, the leader of the republican Sinn Fein party — the political wing of the IRA — called Hume’s willingness to meet with him in 1986 as the “breakthrough moment in Irish politics”.

“When others talked endlessly about peace John grasped the challenge and helped make peace happen,” he said.

In his Nobel acceptance speech in December 1998, Hume said understanding that difference — “whether the difference is race, religion or nationality” — was key to conflict resolution.

“The answer to difference is to respect it,” he added. “Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace — respect for diversity.”

Hume’s family said his funeral would be arranged in accordance with current government regulations severely limiting the number of attendees due to the risk of coronavirus.

“We realise this will mean that many will be unable to join us, and we will arrange a memorial service and a celebration of his life in due course,” they said.

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