Making a Just Peace in Ulster

From Derry's Slums To Harvard-and Back

John Hume's most cogent memories of his childhood in the predominantly Catholic Bogside section of Londonderry. Northern Ireland, are of crowded living quarters and a multitude of dishes made of pork and butchers' leavings. He recalls an existence filled with hardships, hardships the Derry Catholics (Irish Catholics refuse to call Londonderry anything but Derry, for obvious political reasons) had little choice but to accept.

Last Thursday, after a two-month stint as an associate fellow of the Center for International Affairs, Hume returned to his wife and five children and the same Catholic section of Derry where he was raised. Northern Ireland remains a violence-charged tragedy, where extremist Catholic and Protestant gunmen roam the streets and more moderate elements seem incapable of bringing peace to the area. And Hume's native Bogside might well be the heart of this tragedy: since the violent outbreaks of 1969 in Ulster, 103 politically-motivated murders have been committed in the area within a half-mile of Hume's home.

In an ocean of bitterness, violence and mistrust, Hume stands apart as an island of reason. For 15 years--as a community leader, civil rights activist, parliament member and government minister--Hume has sought to attain full civil, economic and political rights for the Catholic minority of Ulster by bringing Catholics and Protestants together. As deputy leader of the Social Democratic Labour Party, which he helped found in 1970, he now seeks to establish a government in Ulster that would distribute power fairly between the two sections of the community. But first, he says, he wants to see an end to the violence in Ulster. "Violence cannot be used to effect political change in a divided society," Hume declares. "All that violence does in a divided society is make it more divided."

An energetic individual who seems incessantly on the move, in his two short months as a CfIA fellow, Hume wrote a third of a text on conflict resolution being prepared by the center; conducted numerous seminars at the center on the situation in Ulster, conferred with government leaders in Washington and made public appearances up and down the East coast. And the day after he landed in Ulster, Hume and a political colleague, Paddy Devlin, convened the Social Democrats' annual conference in Belfast.

Hume says he believes most Americans view the Ulster conflict as a "religious war," even though the dispute has little to do with theological values. Rather, he argues, it is a dispute centering on a nationalistic and political cleavage dating back hundreds of years, a cleavage with which the religious divide coincides. Still, Hume claims, the gap is not always insurmountable, and his own Social Democratic Party stands as an example of how it can be overcome. Currently, the party's membership is 80 per cent Catholic and 20 percent Protestant, and Protestants hold some of the positions of party leadership. Hume believes his party commands considerable support. In the last election held in Ulster--the legislative assembly election held three years ago--the Social Democrats captured nearly one quarter of the popular vote.

The solution, Hume's party believes, must be a sharing of the executive power in a new Northern Ireland government, with Catholics and Protestants represented in proportion to their numbers. Voting rights must be based on universal suffrage and one man, one vote (before the fall of the Unionist government at Stormont, certain Protestants had dual vote privileges); Protestants cannot continue to dominate the legislature through contrived voting districts, gerrymandered to favor their election. The party recognizes that many Ulster Protestants fear Catholic republicanism most of all--that in a united Ireland, the Catholic majority would dominate the Protestants, attempting to destroy their traditions. Consequently, the Social Democrats support unification of the Irish Republic only with the approval of both sections of the community. At first, the party platform states, the Republic and the province should only hope to work together on matters of common concern such as resource development and tourism.

Hume speaks of his country with quiet, serious intensity and becomes even more subdued when he describes daily life in Ulster today. Hume says he finds that Americans generally have trouble conceiving "what a small, well-organized group of people can do to immobilize a community when they practice urban guerrilla warfare."

Hume describes a feud based on random, vendetta killings. "Many, many innocent people have been killed," he says. "There's a tit-for-tat campaign of sectarian murder, where randomly chosen Catholics and Protestants are killed by the violent groups, simply because of their religion and for no other reason at all." One day the IRA kills a Protestant, Hume says, and the next day the Ulster Defence Association retaliates and kills a Catholic.

Since 1969, when violence broke out in response to a developing Catholic civil rights movement, more than 5000 bombs have exploded. More than 1600 people have been killed. Hume is fond of pointing out that, in a province with a population the size of Connecticut's, these deaths would be the equivalent of 200,000 American deaths--four times the rate of U.S. losses in Vietnam.

People who live in one of the cities of Ulster cannot escape the tension and constant fear of random violence, Hume says. Londonderry remains a city under military occupation. Instead of night-stick toting policemen patrolling the streets, British soldiers with automatic rifles are always visible. Soldiers stop shoppers as they pass through check-points throughout the city, searching their bags and parcels for bombs and weapons; people are accustomed to running wildly from a store after a bomb threat is announced.

"Everybody is at risk in Northern Ireland, but political leaders have a special risk to take," Hume says with a trace of resignation. "We are aware of those risks when we take on responsibilities." He frequently receives letters and telephone threats on his life. Sometimes individuals abuse him as he walks the streets of Derry.

The oldest of seven children, Hume's father was unemployed from the end of World War II until his death 20 years later. Hume started to work at the age of eight to supplement his mother's meager earnings and his father's unemployment benefits. Hume enrolled at the National University of Ireland in the Republic in 1954, where, after briefly considering study to enter the priesthood, he eventually earned bachelor's degrees in French and modern history, and a masters in history. Not surprisingly given his background, Hume wrote his masters thesis on the social and economic history of Londonderry. Throughout the '60s, he taught history at St. Colomb's college in Londonderry.

In 1960, Hume emerged as a Londonderry community leader, founding the island's first self-help credit collective for Derry Catholics, "to help them to help themselves." The collective, which started with a five-pound investment, quickly blossomed into the still-powerful Credit Union Movement of Ireland. Hume served as president of the movement from 1964 to 1968.

The year 1968 was a watershed for Ulster Catholics, when 50 years of oppression--discrimination in the areas of housing, jobs, education and voting rights, legislated by the Protestant Unionist Party monolith--finally gave rise to the Catholic civil rights movement. Hume emerged quickly as a leading spokesman for this non-violent movement. In the first days of January, 1969, the world looked on in horror as a four day-long civil rights march from Belfast to Derry met a massive Protestant attack that left many of the marchers wounded. As the marchers crossed Burntollet Bridge outside Derry, the Protestant mob attacked with everything from brass knuckles to spiked clubs, throwing injured marchers into the river below while police looked on. On August 12, the Apprentice Boys, a Unionist group which yearly commemorates the 17th century Protestant victory in Ulster, marched outside the walls of the Catholic Bogside ghetto, shouting taunts--obscenities and slurs against the Pope--and showering pennies down on the Catholics from above the wall. The Protestant taunts elicited a barrage of stones from the Catholics--and the fracas quickly evolved into the week-long battle of Bogside. The first nine deaths of the conflict came here. And soon afterwards, British troops were introduced into Ulster.

Hume seeks to correct what he says he believes is a popular international misconception--that the provisional Irish Republican Army contributed to Ulster violence from the very start of the civil rights movement. He emphasizes that it was not until a full year after Bogside that the IRA reappeared and began to recruit members in the Catholic ghettoes of Ulster and Belfast. "At first, the IRA claimed only that they wanted to defend the Catholic community. But it wasn't too long before the IRA was off on the attack with its bombing and shooting."

During the summer of 1969, Hume stood for and won the seat in the Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont representing his native Bogside. In their recent book, Ireland: A Terrible Beauty, Leon and Jill Uris describe John Hume as "the best political brain on the island...a dedicated, unshakeable man," an evaluation at which Hume modestly says he has no idea how they arrived. While in the Stormont parliament, however, Hume demonstrated brilliance as both constitutionalist and politician. In early 1970, Hume was instrumental in forcing the Unionists to disband the B-Specials, a unit of the government's Royal Ulster Constabulary which had done a great deal with their repeated partisan Protestant stands to heighten tensions between the Catholics and Protestants. Later, he proved almost singlehandedly that the British troops' presence in Ulster was unconstitutional and forced the London government to enact legislation "legalizing" their presence.

Hume has consistently carried his quest for a non-violent solution to the Ulster conflict from the negotiating table to the city streets of Derry and Belfast. While a Stormont parliament member, Hume often risked his own life quieting Catholic protestors, keeping exchanges of insults from escalating into violence. Today, of course, all Protestant and Catholic marches are open invitations to violence and have been banned by the London government.

Today, Hume says his party places its hope for a political settlement on an Ulster government with proportional representation in the executive for Catholics and Protestants along the lines of the short-lived Power Sharing executive of 1974. The government, in which Hume served as Minister of Industry and Commerce, collapsed in less than five months, after Ulster-wide strikes by Protestant trade unions. Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister, declared the Protestant strikes "a deliberate and calculated attempt to use every undemocratic and unparliamentary means for bringing down the constitution of Northern Ireland."

Hume blames the experiment's failure directly on the British. "The British government had control of security, we didn't. We feel that if they had acted at the beginning of the strike, the strike would have had no success. But the longer they waited the bigger became the bandwagon, and in the end they just stood by and let the experiment collapse." All of the members resigned. "Still," Hume says, "the agreement showed that a sharing of power between the two sections of the community could work, and work well."

While in the U.S., Hume says he discovered that many Irish-Americans do have a sense of the complexities of the situation in Ulster, although he says most of the Irish-American leaders who want to help "are careful about what they say." Some Irish-Americans, however, are even more extremist than the native Irish themselves. "Their fanaticism grows with their distance from their homeland," Hume says, and their monetary support of the violent tactics of the IRA "contribute to an already deep and intractable problem."

Hume says that his two months at the University was valuable for him in that it gave him "time to think and study." Although the CfIA stint did not really affect his political outlook, Hume says, "I go back refreshed, hoping I can make a good contribution to resolving the crisis."

The Protestant and Catholic women's peace movement in Northern Ireland began this fall in the wake of the tragic death of three children hit by an IRA member-driven car being chased through Belfast streets by British army vehicles. Hume says the movement is a "completely spontaneous outcry for peace" which may lead to an atmosphere in which political negotiations can resume. Hume believes as much as 95 per cent of the Ulster population now abhor the violence of the extremists.

Hume suggests the British government has a major responsibility for finding a solution. "They're the sovereign government. They've got all the authority and all the power." But he says he fears that a number of factors--the growth of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, Britain's ever-increasing economic woes, and the growing number of Britons who are simply fed up with the whole Ulster affair--may result in a postponement of British attempts to seek a settlement, or even worse, the withdrawal of British troops before a political settlement is reached.

Hume believes civil war--an outright bloodbath--could very well follow such a withdrawal.

"The IRA feels that the British should simply get out of Northern Ireland. We think that's a dangerous view," says Hume. "Everybody wants troops removed. No one likes soldiers on their streets. But the people who are prudent and wise want troops removed in the context of a political settlement so that there's something left behind to insure that there's peace and order." A short year ago, Leon and Jill Uris wrote, "There is no way that the British could continue as a respected people after a desertion that could bring civil war." Today, Hume claims, that desertion--respectable or not--is a much more serious possibility.

Just as the British appear to be relinquishing a sense of responsibility for the Ulster conflict, most observers agree that the Irish Republic's support for the Catholic minority in Ulster is now moderated by a growing realization that the problems of the island would not simply disappear if the Republic and the province were united. The position of Hume's party now echoes the view of Irish Republican Prime Minister Liam Cosgrave: no unification can occur without the consent of the Ulster majority.

For John Hume, however, the question of Northern Ireland's exact relationships with Britain and the Irish Republic remains secondary to the larger problem: "The central ongoing problem for us on the island of Ireland will remain the relationship between the Catholic and the Protestant Irish," Hume says. "This problem will remain, regardless of what happens to the British."

"I want to see an agreed Ireland. An Ireland in which the people of Ireland, North and South, Protestant and Catholic, are agreed on how it's to be governed. And once that basis is found, I believe that working together over the years we will gradually erode the mistrust and fear of the times and replace it with confidence and trust. This will lead to a new Ireland based on normal political divisions and not outdated, sectarian prejudices."