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03rd Aug 2020

John Hume will fix it, he always fixes it

Conan Doherty

During a Hallowe’en party in 1993, three men dressed in boiler suits and balaclavas entered the Rising Sun Bar in Greysteel, a calm, small village on the north coast of county Derry.

Armed with an assault rifle, Stephen Irwin roared “trick or treat” and opened fire.

As civilians in the lounge fled for their lives, two more UDA members took aim without discrimination.

Eight innocent people were killed that night – six Catholic, two Protestant. 19 were injured. A community and an island shaken again. Irwin? He said he had no remorse for what happened.

That was 1993. That was just 27 short years ago.

At a funeral in the aftermath, a young daughter of one of the victims turned to John Hume. Everyone always turned to John Hume.

“Mr Hume,” she said. “We prayed for you round my daddy’s coffin last night, that you would be successful, so that what has happened to us wouldn’t happen to any other family.”

In their darkest hour, devoid of hope, it was John Hume they needed.

And, for over 30 years, as the island was being ripped to pieces in a never-ending, never-satisfying war, darkness was prevailing. A bomb was exploding at a fishmonger’s because a building site was attacked. Automatic rifles were unloading at a Hallowe’en party because a fishmonger’s was hit, and on and on and round and round the most vicious of circles continued with seemingly no possibility of a shared future. Seemingly no hope.

It was John Hume who was needed.

Hume’s legacy is such that it requires no explanation. He’s the reason life is better.

He’s the reason the trouble stopped. He’s the reason nationalists and unionists can slag each other about being Protestant and Catholic, barely a generation after mass murders. He’s the reason we can talk, even. Because, in a world of distrust and fear, he was the only one looking to do something as simple as that.

When people lifted guns, John Hume held hands. When some met in secret, Hume marched in broad daylight. When they whispered and plotted, he spoke louder for the whole world to hear. When others wanted retaliation, John Hume said peace.

“Difference is an accident of birth,” Hume famously declared in a 2001 Nobel Laureate Lecture Series as he outlined how all of the world’s conflicts come down to one thing: difference. But, more importantly, he explained, difference is so natural to us that no two people in the entire world are ever or will ever be the same.

“Difference is of the essence of humanity and therefore respect for difference should be very, very normal.”

When people grow afraid of what’s different, he sought it out to get a better understanding of it and a better respect for it. And, whilst he was always intelligent, passionate, unbelievably persistent, no-one achieves the sort of change Hume brought about in the world if you don’t have an understanding and a way with people. Especially people so different.

And, God, John Hume had a way with people.

Of all of Hume’s achievements, he’s probably the only man in the world who has ended conflict whilst simultaneously acting as a Mr Fix It for his city as his door was darkened every day with everyday problems of the people of Derry.

Go up to John Hume. He’ll sort you out.

And, usually, he did.

In 2003, on a trip to Barcelona with Jim Roddy and Kevin Mahon to convince the Spanish giants to play Derry City in a friendly on Foyleside, Hume had time for a drive-by.

As a guest of the Catalan MEP at the time, the story goes that, by breakfast with the mayor, Hume was sitting down with Spanish loyalists and Spanish separatists at the same table. This was three years before ETA had issued a ceasefire, with tensions in provinces particularly high, but here was a man from Derry breaking bread with the two opposing groups and, not only that, he had the two of them speaking effortlessly with one another.

Hume sat in the middle explaining his views on what he saw as a quirk of birth. He laid out to them the futility of violence. And, as he got stuck into a croissant, he turned to two men at either side of him and nonchalantly said to the loyalist the same thing he said to the separatist.

“Do you really not realise that, had you been born where he’s from, you’d be exactly where he is today?”

The two were said to be struck by Hume’s humanity and by his simple way of looking at life. For a man chowing down on a croissant, speaking with a thick Northern Irish accent and with such an ordinary way of looking at things, he was able to evoke extraordinary feelings.

That’s why the Nou Camp came to their feet and roared in unison as John Hume appeared in the president’s box a day earlier. He inspired hope all over the world.

And all this just in the middle of convincing one of the biggest football clubs in the game to come to Derry.

10 years after the Greysteel massacre, Ronaldinho was making his Barcelona debut at the Brandywell.

As Hume got older and he suffered from dementia, the people of his town were still as excited to have the opportunity to speak with the man they revered, as they caught him on his long walks around the city he changed for the better. What they all soon started to notice was that every taxi rank in Derry was keeping an eye out for him to make sure he always got home safely.

After being protected for so long by Hume’s activism, it was his turn to have someone keeping him safe now.

And yet for all the lives that he helped, all the walls he broke down and the history he made, it was Hume’s humility that marked him out as someone who really could change things for everyone.

“I never thought in terms of being a leader,” he said. “I thought very simply in terms of helping people.”

That’s how the best leaders think.

In the corporate world, some leaders work less and get paid more. They get treated better and they might even get rewarded for being selfish. In the real world, real leaders are those who act in the interests of others. They work harder, they work longer. They eat after everyone else. They put themselves at risk so others might prosper. They’re the ones people follow. That’s what John Hume was. That’s why everyone followed him, from every side.

Before he even turned his hand to freeing Ireland from The Troubles, he was a founding member of the Credit Union in Derry, something that tangibly impacted people’s lives in a very positive and very fair way. He was always going to give people the chance to make their lives better, no matter what he did.

That’s why, whilst he might say that we are all just an accident of birth, John Hume would’ve made life better wherever he was born, whenever he was born.

He would’ve affected change for the better and he would’ve done it for the masses.

It just so happened that this accident of birth was one of the most important things to ever happen on this island.

That he was born in that specific part of the world at that specific time is probably the greatest accident of birth to ever unfold here. That Ireland was given John Hume when they needed him most is the reason it prevailed from the darkness.

Hope. That’s what John Hume brought to every soul he encountered. He envisioned a better world and he brought it into existence. He made everything better for everyone. He fixed it, he sorted it, like everyone was told he would.

And there was nothing – not one thing – accidental about any of it.

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