“John Hume, who has died aged 83, did more than any other person to shepherd Northern Ireland to peace and reconciliation, a feat that earned him global acclaim, including a Nobel prize” – The Guardian, Aug 3rd, 2020
“Mr Hume, who spearheaded the finally successful efforts to end the violence of the Troubles and who is viewed as the architect of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, was in a nursing home and had been ill for a long time” – The Irish Times, Aug 3rd, 2020
“Mr. Hume’s most dramatic initiative played out in the late 1980s and mid-’90s, when he held secret peace talks with Mr. Adams at a modest rowhouse in the city of Derry, which those seeking to retain close ties to Britain refer to as Londonderry” – The New York Times, Aug 3rd, 2020
So, was John Hume really the spearhead and architect of the peace process, the politician/activist who did more than anyone else to bring the Troubles to an end? Or has the media, swayed by the emotion of the moment, gone overboard in their assessment of a contribution that was vital in its way but no more or less worthy of acknowledgement than the contributions of many of the host of players in a drama that played out over two decades?
The theatrics that would propel the Troubles in Northern Ireland to an extraordinary and, at the time, unthinkable conclusion began at the end of what was already an historic week. On Wednesday, October 20th, 1982 NI’s voters had gone to the polls to elect the members of a new experimental Assembly which the recently appointed British Secretary of State, Jim Prior hoped might evolve into a parliament which would see Unionists and Nationalists share power and by so doing create the basis of a longer lasting peace.
The election would produce a bombshell result which shocked political opinion on both islands, but especially in the Republic of Ireland. Virtually the entire British and Irish media and political establishment accepted the conventional wisdom that the Provisionals were an unrepresentative minority, rejected by most Catholic voters who gave their support instead to the SDLP, the party led since 1979 by John Hume. And so, Sinn Fein’s trouncing at the polls that October was the bookie’s, and the Irish political establishment’s, favoured and expected outcome.
That was always a questionable assumption which ignored the reality that by this point the IRA had been fighting a war for the best part of a decade and to do so must have had significant popular support in Nationalist areas.
But the IRA had also just gone through a lengthy prison hunger strike, during which ten prisoners, most of them in the IRA, had died and during which support for the organisation had surged.
The hunger strikers’ leader Bobby Sands had been elected to the House of Commons, and after his death his election agent then replaced him as MP. Sands’ funeral, from his home in west Belfast, attracted one of the largest crowds ever seen in recent Irish history.
Election victories later in the summer of 1981 by some of Sands’ colleagues in the Republic’s general election provided more compelling evidence that, like it or not, the IRA had a significant popular political base.
Nonetheless political and media orthodoxy was still stuck in an earlier time zone. So it was that when Sinn Fein won five seats in the Assembly poll and came close to taking two more in that October’s Assembly election, winning a total of ten per cent of the vote, the political establishment in Ireland reeled in shock.
But the deeper significance of this result evaded most observers: republicans now had a political alternative to the IRA’s violence while the result injected a new tension between the two wings of the republican movement: IRA violence could erode or hamper the growth of Sinn Fein’s electoral support, and vice-versa – but neither could prosper at the same time. This new tension within the Provisionals, more than the efforts of any one individual, would determine the direction and pace of the peace process in the ensuing years.
It would be difficult to contrive a more dramatic example of this scenario being played out than the events of the Friday morning following that dramatic election result. Early that morning, 54-year-old Tommy Cochrane, a Protestant and Orangeman from Markethill in Co. Armagh was making his way to work at a linen mill in the village of Glennane by motorcycle when a pursuing car knocked him into a ditcCochrane, who was also a sergeant in the Ulster Defence Regiment, a part time British militia widely suspected of links to the Loyalist paramilitary underworld, was bundled into the car which then sped off in the direction of South Armagh, an IRA redoubt known popularly as ‘Bandit Country’.
As people imagined the terrors and torture that Cochrane was enduring or soon would, Northern Irish Catholics knew there would be Loyalist reprisals. And there were. The first to be killed was 48-year old Joseph Donegan, an unemployed Catholic carpenter from Ballymurphy in West Belfast who was kidnapped, tortured and then killed by a notorious Loyalist gang based in the Shankill Road led by Lennie Murphy, a killer who had terrorised Belfast’s Catholic community for years. Thirty-two people, Catholics, Protestants, IRA members, policemen and soldiers, would die in the post-election paroxysm of violence before the year ended,
Fr, Alec Reid knew that something like Joe Donegan’s death would follow Tommy Cochrane’s violent abduction and that added urgency to his mission. A Redemptorist priest from County Tipperary, who had been based in the Order’s monastery in the Clonard district of the Falls Road throughout most of the Troubles, Reid had a long history of conciliation work, intervening to end violent feuds between the rival factions of the IRA and attempting to negotiate an end to the IRA prison protest to achieve political status.
When Tommy Cochrane’s kidnapping became known, Fr Reid hurried to Gerry Adams’ home off the Glen Road on the Upper Falls Road in a bid to secure the unfortunate man’s release. His intervention came too late but his visit began a conversation with the Sinn Fein and IRA leader that would produce what later would be recognised as the peace process, a political alternative to the IRA’s violence.
It would be many years before the effort bore fruit but the seeds were planted when the IRA knocked Tommy Cochrane off his motorbike and spirited him off to the hills of south Armagh.
Much was to happen in the subsequent years that served to strengthen Sinn Fein’s political wing. In 1983, Gerry Adams was elected as MP for West Belfast, and the accompanying message was clear: Sinn Fein could win seats elsewhere if the circumstances were right.
The following year Adams saw off a putsch orchestrated by his once close political ally, Ivor Bell who suspected that Adams was leading the IRA to a ceasefire and a significant ideological compromise. This was prompted by suggestions from Adams for a pan-Nationalist political initiative or front. Bell reasoned, correctly, that this could only happen if Sinn Fein significantly diluted its Brits Out ideology since none of the constitutional Nationalist parties would have any truck with Sinn Fein otherwise.
In 1985, the Thatcher government in London and Garret Fitzgerald’s Fine Gael-Labour coalition in Dublin crafted the Anglo-Irish Agreement, giving the Dublin authorities a consultative say in the day to day affairs of Northern Ireland in the hope that this would strengthen constitutional Nationalists in their struggle with Sinn Fein.
It did. The A-I-A was a huge boost to the SDLP since it demonstrated that constitutional politics could bring results. Sinn Fein’s fortunes began to dwindle. The party’s share of the vote had fallen in the 1984 European elections but any hope in Sinn Fein that this was due primarily to John Hume’s personal popularity rather their their own deficiencies – or the IRA’s – were dashed the following year when SF’s share of the vote in council elections also fell.
One bad election result can be written off as a fluke but not two in a row. It was time for a radical move.
It came in 1986, in the shape of not one but several profound changes in direction by the Sinn Fein leadership all of which, with the benefit of hindsight, edged the IRA closer to a ceasefire and, ultimately, the acceptance of what would become the Good Friday Agreement.
Firstly, Fr, Reid wrote to Charles Haughey proposing talks with the Sinn Fein leader.
Then the British government, in the shape of new NIO Secretary Tom King was approached, with Fr Reid once again the intermediary. Via the Redemptorist priest, Adams wrote to King, asking him six questions which I reproduced in my book ‘A Secret History of the IRA‘ .
These ranged from ‘What is the nature of the British government’s i?’, through to: ‘In the context of dialogue free from interference, will the British government publicly state its intention to withdraw from Ireland and give a date by which such withdrawal will be complete?’
King’s private and secret reply to Adams contained a phrase in answer to Adams’ first question, which would, when Peter Brooke, King’s successor, repeated them publicly in 1989, be the key that would unlock the door to talks with Sinn Fein and ultimately the Good Friday Agreement.
His formulation read thus: ”Britain of course has an interest in Northern Ireland which is to respond with a warm goodwill and friendship to the needs of the people of Northern Ireland as a whole…..But let me be very clear! In the second half of the twentieth century no matter what has been the position in the past the British government has no political, military, strategic or economic interest in staying in Ireland or in the exercise of authority there that could transcend respect for the wishes of the majority in Northern Ireland.”
When Peter Brooke succeeded Tom King in 1989 he made this declaration public policy.
In 1986 the IRA held its first Convention since 1969 and passed a resolution allowing IRA members to take their seats in Dail Eireann, the Dublin parliament, thus recognising the legitimacy of the Southern state for the first time in the history of the post-1921 IRA. A few weeks later, in October 1986, Sinn Fein followed suit at the party’s annual ard fheis. The way had been opened for Sinn Fein to recognise the Irish government and to participate in talks led by the authorities in Dublin.
The following year Charles Haughey’s Fianna Fail party emerged as the largest single party in that year’s February general election but fell three votes shy of a parliamentary majority. Nonetheless Haughey was able to put together a government and the moment had seemingly arrived for Fr Reid and Gerry Adams.
In May, Fr Reid wrote a lengthy letter to Haughey suggesting that if he held talks with Gerry Adams in a bid to create a pan-Nationalist policy on the Northern conflict, the outcome could be an IRA ceasefire and eventual talks to end the violence. Haughey was intrigued and instructed a key aide, Martin Mansergh to open talks with Reid. Adams contributed to the dialogue, dispatching written messages which were passed on to Haughey.
But Adams’ efforts to open a face-to-face dialogue with Haughey were rebuffed and for compelling reasons. Long accused of conniving at the creation and arming of the Provisional IRA in 1969, the disclosure that Haughey was now involved in secret talks with the IRA’s leader, no matter how well intentioned, could destroy him. And so Haughey refused.
But Haughey proposed a compromise which eventually Adams and Reid embraced. John Hume would be invited to talk to Adams and asked to report back to Haughey via Martin Mansergh. But, fearing that Hume would either gossip about the earlier contacts between Haughey and Adams or carelessly let it slip, Hume was kept in the dark about the Reid-Haughey-Adams conversations.
And so, Fr Reid wrote to Hume nn Haughey’s behalf inviting him to open talks with Adams on the basis that the Irish government approved and would act accordingly on any progress made. When Albert Reynolds succeeded Haughey as Fianna Fail leader and then as Taoiseach, the secret arrangement continued with Martin Mansergh re-employed as the go-between.
(It was a tip off from a government source in Dublin that Martin Mansergh’s continuing role in the Reynolds Taoiseach’s office was unusual enough to be worthy of deeper investigation that set this writer on the path to researching and writing what became ‘A Secret History of the IRA‘)
And so it was that John Hume believed that he had fired the starting pistol which led Gerry Adams to accept the Good Friday Agreement, a belief which in the absence of any contrary version, most of the media were content to accept as the truth.
But it was not true. Hume knew nothing about the lengthy interaction Haughey had with Adams that had preceded his involvement. He believed he had started the dialogue with Adams and that he had persuaded the SF leaders to take the journey that became the peace process. It was a version of a story that was meat and drink to most of the media.
In 1994, Bill Clinton gave Gerry Adams a 48 hour visa to visit New York. It was clearly a seminal moment in the peace process and myself and the senior staff in The Sunday Tribune decided it was an appropriate moment to make some of this public.
For many months I had been interviewing Charles Haughey about his memories of this period. I made many trips to Kinsealy and the former Taoiseach had been generous with his time and access to some of the vital documents still in his possession. At one point he showed me his entire archive of the conversations with Adams which he had arranged in a sort of tower on the floor beside his desk. It was at least three feet high.
I rang Haughey to ask if it was okay with him if some of what we had talked about for my book was made public in the Tribune and unsurprisingly he agreed. A photographer was dispatched to Kinsealy.
We also alerted Sinn Fein about what was coming down the pike and asked for their reaction. Rita O’Hare rang back with a pithy response: ‘You’re a bastard, Moloney’.
John Hume was disbelieving and initially angry, first at me for defying and denying what he had for so long believed had been the truth and then, I would like to think, at those who had deceived him. But who knows. He lapsed into silence at the end, seemingly digesting slowly what I had told him.
I don’t know this for sure, but I did often wonder afterwards as the myth about his role persisted that it didn’t really matter what I wrote or said or how many editions of my book were published as long as most journalists continued to hail him as the hero of the peace process – as so many of them did this week. And he did have that Nobel Peace prize to flourish in the face of the doubters.
None of what I have written here is meant to diminish the role that John Hume did play. He was central to events, although not as central as he liked to think. But if anyone set the IRA and Adams on the road to the Good Friday Agreement it was Alec Reid, Charles Haughey and Martin Mansergh – and Adams himself. But not John Hume.
Nonetheless John Hume’s gospel of dialogue, non-violence and compromise did run through the peace process like Blackpool through a stick of rock.
But John Hume was honoured when other more deserving candidates were not. I wrote at the time that ‘A Secret History…‘ was published that the Nobel Peace Prize should really have been awarded to Gerry Adams. I still believe that.