Vulcan Insight

John Hume – European Statesman

7 August 2020

Among the many eulogies dedicated to the former leader of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party, John Hume, this week he has been described as a “peacemaker”,  “MP”, “architect of the Good Friday Agreement”, “the man who built the peace”, “Nobel laureate”,  “civil rights campaigner” and the “greatest Irishman since Parnell” to list just a few.   

These descriptions rightly outline both Hume’s role in fostering peace in Northern Ireland and his deserved place in the pantheon of Irish nationalist leaders – but one equally important description which should not be overlooked is “John Hume – European Statesman”.  

It has been understated rather than forgotten that Hume served as MEP from the European Parliament’s first direct elections in 1979 to 2004 – five consecutive terms and it was to Europe that Hume looked for a framework and inspiration for peace in Northern Ireland.  As former diplomat Seán Donlon noted earlier this week, for Hume Brussels was “fertile ground” because of his conviction that the European project could do for Northern Ireland what it had done for Franco-German reconciliation.  

Hume’s offered a view of Europe which reached beyond the parochial. Speaking in 2002, the then President of the European Parliament, Pat Cox,  outlined that he understood the “real meaning of European integration, not the common view of many in Ireland that the EU was or is about funds or markets alone but rather he sought as a model for conflict resolution, peace and reconciliation and constantly expressed his conviction as to its relevance to Northern Ireland.” 

In a 2002 speech in the European Parliament Hume remarked that the three principles at the heart of the European Union were the same three principles at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement: 

  1. Respect for difference. 
  1. Institutions which respect difference. 
  1. Working together in the common interest and by doing so breaking down the barriers of the past. 

Hume was also instrumental, alongside other Northern Irish MEPs, in a campaign for an EU PEACE programme for Northern Ireland’s conflict-damaged economy. During the 1980s Northern Irish MEPs presented a united front to maximise financial assistance from Brussels, continuing to do so in the 1990s until the establishment of the Peace I Programme in 1995. This programme provided support for projects which fostered cross-community and cross-border co-operation and has played crucial part in supporting peace and reconciliation. 

Yet Hume was not completely unwavering in his praise for Europe. As current Irish Ambassador to the United States, Daniel Mulhall noted: “He could be deeply critical of European institutions for not living up to the aspirations embedded in the EU Treaties, but he invariably saw Europe as a productive framework for resolving a range of contemporary problems.” 

While Hume’s various contributions as an MEP will fade with time his most memorable and enduring European contribution will likely be the speech he gave to the European Parliament shortly after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 when, drawing inspiration from the recently signed Good Friday Agreement, he noted:  

“The Peace Process in Northern Ireland, as far as I am concerned, has been most heavily inspired by the inspiration of this place…the European Union is the best example, as we have learned, in the history of the world of conflict resolution, and the philosophy that created the European Union and the peace of Europe is the philosophy if you study it that it is at heart of our Agreement.” 

Ill health prevented Hume from taking part in the Brexit debate and while the outcome of that vote in 2016 would have disappointed him hugely his comments from 1998 serve as a powerful reminder of the raison d’être of the European project. 

The full speech can be viewed here

His passing marks the death of a statesman of European significance.