John Hume was born January 18, 1937, in Derry, Ireland. After working as a teacher and civil rights activist, he entered politics and was leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party in Northern Ireland from 1979 to 2001. He served in the British Parliament from 1983 and the European Parliament from 1979; he was a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly 1998–2000. For his work in bringing about a peaceful solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland, in 1998 he and David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.
John Hume was born on January 18, 1937, in Derry, Northern Ireland, a border city sharply divided along religious and political lines. The oldest child in his family, Hume was raised in an environment of inequality and discrimination that was the lot for the Roman Catholic minority living under British rule and amid an often-hostile Protestant majority. Profoundly affected by his experiences, Hume became determined to help alleviate the injustices in his community.
After initially considering the priesthood, Hume chose to study history and French at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, as well as in France. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1958 and a master’s degree in 1964, at which point he returned to Northern Ireland and found work as a teacher in a secondary school. Through education, Hume sought to help narrow the economic and social divisions in his country and give others the opportunity to lift themselves up.
Not satisfied with education alone, Hume became interested in the credit union movement and was one of the founding members of the Derry Credit Union, which issued loans at reasonable rates to those who might not otherwise qualify. Hume remained involved in the movement and would later serve as president of the Credit Union League of Ireland. He was also instrumental in the forming of the Derry Housing Association, an organization that built new homes in the area to help alleviate the housing shortage. Despite the group’s magnanimous intentions, their activities soon raised the ire of the local government, who feared that changing the area’s demographics would threaten their political advantage as well.
Unable to overcome their opposition to his projects, in the late 1960s Hume turned to the streets and employed a method of nonviolent protest inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement to try to effect change in the region. However, his peaceful campaign was met with harsh and sometimes violent counter protests that resulted in both his brief detainment and the involvement of the British Army, which was brought in to quell the unrest.
Hume took the next step in his crusade in 1969 when he won a seat on the Northern Ireland Parliament. The following year, he founded the Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) for the purpose of unifying Ireland through peaceful means and nonsectarian politics. Hume and the SDLP would win their first victory in 1971, when the Northern Ireland Housing Executive was created to manage matters of public housing independently of local divisions. Sadly, this progress was marred by the intensification of the Irish Troubles, which brought violent attacks to both sides of the religious and political divide and resulted in Britain re-implementing its direct rule of Northern Ireland in 1972.
Despite these setbacks, Hume continued his political advocacy throughout the 1970s and in 1979 became leader of the SDLP. He was also chosen to represent Northern Ireland in the European Parliament. Hume made further gains in 1983, when he was elected to British Parliament, a vote of confidence for his moderate politics, which stood in contrast to the more-extremist views of other parties.
These international roles allowed Hume to make significant strides toward his vision of a peaceful and unified Ireland; he lobbyied British and American politicians to help him achieve his goals. His efforts are considered instrumental in bringing about the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985, which allowed for the Republic of Ireland to assume a direct advisory role in Northern Ireland politics on the condition that the future of the government could only be decided by a majority consensus.
But perhaps Hume’s greatest achievement began later that decade, when in 1988 he initiated private talks with Gerry Adams, leader of the Sinn Féin party, a hardline group that advocated for the ousting of British rule and the unification of Ireland. The two men met several times between then and 1993, resulting in the Hume-Adams Statement, which called for improved relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as well as with England. This arrangement, though harshly criticized on both sides of the political divide, ultimately led to the 1994 ceasefire between Unionist paramilitary groups and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which had been responsible for much of the violence in previous decades.
This progress was further bolstered when newly elected Unionist leader David Trimble agreed to meet with Hume and members of the government in Ireland. In 1997, Sinn Féin would join the talks as well, and from it was spawned the so-called Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which was ratified in an island-wide vote. By establishing a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, it effectively brought an end to the Troubles. For his important work in bringing the measure to fruition, Hume (along with David Trimble) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Hume continued to serve in the governments of Northern Ireland, Britain the European Union until 2004, when he retired from politics. However, he remained active in the international credit union and was involved in charity work to combat poverty around the world. He also served as the president of the Derry City Football Club, of which he has been a lifelong supporter. Unfortunately, he fell ill in the 1990s and his wife, Pat, recently said he suffered brain damage as a consequence, which has resulted in severe memory loss and a form of dementia.
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