Embracing the Compromises of Political Giants

John Hume helped bring peace to Northern Ireland. But the true legacy of his life lies in his understanding of complexity.

John Hume, who died at age 83 today
John Hume, who died at age 83 today, speaks to riot police at a protest in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1969. (Daily Mirror / Mirrorpix / Getty)

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.

In a narrow political sense, the greatest value of this inheritance lies not in the words of the Good Friday Agreement, but the way of working that the deal embedded in the governance of Northern Ireland—a political philosophy that has become the established doctrine, for good or bad. In the new Northern Ireland that Hume created, the usual rules of democracy have been suspended in the pursuit of a peace that remains delicate. Power is shared among communities; majorities of individual citizens or politicians do not, and cannot, take all. Decisions must be made by mutual agreement. The consequence is a government that cannot be replaced, but that ensures an uneasy stability.

Yet his legacy is greater still. Hume combined moral clarity against violence and strategic vision for what peace might entail with a politician’s embrace of life’s complexities, the need to compromise and to take risks, to find where power lies and to exploit it. Hume was supremely successful in this effort, whether you agree with the ends he pursued or the tactics he deployed to achieve them; he was not a saint, but a man who made judgments that are not beyond reproach. He abhorred violence, but brought Sinn Fein’s leaders (who did not) to the top table of Northern Irish politics. In seeking out giants, we are too quick to seek out perfection, when no such thing exists. Hume’s legacy lies in the compromises he championed and the complexities he recognized.

(Three Lions / Hulton Archive / Getty)

Hume’s death follows those of other leading political figures from his generation, such as the fellow nationalist Seamus Mallon in January (who was critical of his dialogue with Sinn Fein), Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness in 2017, and the Democratic Unionist Party’s Ian Paisley in 2014. With each death, a sentimental longing is stirred in a political class raised in their shadow, a wistful affection for a past that did not quite exist. I have lost count of the times I have spoken with unionists whose loathing for McGuinness’s murderous policies (and actions) at some point morphed into a nostalgic longing for the power and certainty that he came to represent. He might have been a terrorist, ran the logic, but at least we knew what we were dealing with and he could hold his own side in check. Paisley’s history of sectarianism was subject to similar revisionism on the other side after his death.

Today in Northern Ireland there is a residual fear that with the passing of this older generation, of which Hume was spiritual leader, an element of hope has gone too. Without Hume’s vision, or McGuinness’s violent authority, or Paisley’s moral certainty, might things quickly spiral out of control? The killing of the journalist Lyra McKee by dissident Republicans in Hume’s Derry last year raised concerns that a new generation of terrorists had emerged in the ungoverned space left by the loss of this older generation. Similar fears have been expressed to me about the unionist youth, unwilling to bow to the authority of the Paisleyites, whom they partially blame for the compromised position they now find themselves in, split from London and forced to work with the Republicans they loathe.

Fierce criticism has been reserved for leaders in Dublin, London, and Belfast, whether Ireland’s former leader Leo Varadkar for his apparent naïveté, Theresa May or Boris Johnson for playing with the fire of Brexit, or the DUP’s Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill for being unable to rise above their provincial prejudices, as Hume, McGuinness, Paisley, Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, and Hume’s fellow Nobel Prize winner David Trimble were perceived to have done before them. The underlying fear is an old one: What if the politicians who have replaced Hume and others are not up to the job?

Such sentimentality is understandable. Sometimes new leaders really do destroy the work of the giants that came before them. Yet the perception that the great leaders of old were unsullied by the provincialism of today does not often stand up to scrutiny. Helmut Kohl, for example, reportedly complained that Angela Merkel was “breaking my Europe,” but today such attitudes have been replaced by a new fear: that the Europe Merkel created will soon miss her steadying hand.

A great lesson of Hume’s life is that things are not so simple. He argued that identities were complex, not fixed—as he noted, though he was not a unionist, his part of Northern Ireland had closer links to Glasgow, in Scotland, than Dublin. He argued that Irish history was not the simple story that folklore suggested—of Ireland whole and free until 1920, when it was split by the British. Instead, he argued that it had long been an island of division, and that the key to peace was to acknowledge this. “The first thing we have to do sounds like a contradiction,” he explained. “We must accept diversity. The essence of unity … is the acceptance of diversity.”

There is a diversity of opinion about Hume too. Some see in him a fateful legitimization of Republican terror by entering into dialogue with McGuinness and Adams, however much he loathed the Irish Republican Army and its violence. Others see a man who may have despised that terror but who realized that the only way to peace was to bring them to the table. For many he is a hero, for others a complex figure who inspires mixed feelings.

History is complicated and nostalgia a seductive liar, as the former U.S. diplomat George Ball once remarked. Today’s Northern Ireland is a place that Hume envisaged and succeeded in creating. It is at peace and free to choose its own future. It is better than the one it replaced. But it also remains beset by deep problems. To solve them, the new generation of political leaders in Northern Ireland and beyond would be wise to look to the vision, strategic patience, and politicking that saw Hume’s vision triumph.

But it would not be sacrilege to point out that some of today’s problems are the inevitable consequences of the stubborn realities that Hume’s necessarily imperfect vision could not solve. When giants die they are sanctified, but they do not often become giants by being saints. As Hume would have acknowledged, life is more complicated.