A giant dies and the world left behind feels a bit more tawdry and mundane and uninspiring and small. A melancholy descends, filled with insecurity about the present and seductive nostalgia for the certainty of the past. Where have the great leaders gone, one wonders—the great causes and morality, the clarity and vision? The death of the Nobel Prize–winning Irish politician John Hume is such a moment.
Hume’s death today, at age 83, marks the passing of not only a titan of politics, but arguably the most towering of a generation of giants in Northern Irish politics, who did great and terrible things in the pursuit of a cause over which there was, and remains, a great and terrible divide: the future of Northern Ireland. Hume’s legacy is that he mostly did the great things (while others mostly did the terrible), constructing a vision for peace and reconciliation that became a template and then, in time, a living legal accord that forever changed the part of the world that he was born into.
The Good Friday Agreement, which ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland, was Hume’s agreement more than anyone else’s. It is the political legacy that survives him. Over the course of decades, Hume argued that for nationalists—those who want Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, to be merged with the Republic of Ireland, a separate country—what mattered was the unity of people, not the unity of territory (though this remained his long-term aspiration). To him, violence was wrong in all circumstances. And to unionists—his opponents, who favored Northern Ireland remaining a part of the U.K.—he argued that no stability could be achieved without the inclusion of nationalists like him. On both arguments, he won. For his efforts, he shared a Nobel Peace Prize, and the violence that plagued Northern Ireland for decades is largely a memory.