“You can’t eat a flag.” Lessons from John Hume

John Hume was central to ending the Northern Ireland conflict. I consider him the most influential Irish person of my lifetime.

He consistently promoted nonviolent dialogue, giving combatants a way to escape a murderous conflict that they were already weary of.

He persisted in secret talks with Gerry Adams, knowing that if he succeeded in ending IRA violence, Sinn Féin would probably eclipse his own SDLP party.

He also frustrated those who preferred the simplicity of opposing views to the nuance of seeking common ground in contradictory positions.

John Hume is the only person to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Gandhi Peace Prize, and the Martin Luther King Award.

On his death today aged 83, here are some quotes that sum up the importance of his contribution to Ireland, Europe, and the world.

On difference

“You can’t eat a flag.”

“The real division of Ireland is not a line drawn on the map, but in the minds and hearts of its people.”

“All conflict is about difference; whether the difference is race religion, or nationality.”

“Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it.”

“The European Union is the best example in the history of the world of conflict resolution.”

On violence

“We should spill our sweat, not our blood.”

“The taking of human life is the greatest injustice, other injustices can be corrected, people can come out of prisons, but people cannot come out of their graves.”

“The greatest injustice in the North of Ireland today is acts committed by paramilitary organisations, like the IRA.”

“They believed that Britain was in Ireland defending their own interests, therefore the Irish had the right to use violence to put them out. My argument was that that type of thinking was out of date.”

“If the House wants the IRA to win, then hang them. If the House again erects a scaffold in my country, it will turn the whole of Ireland into a savage and bloody battlefield.”

“Too many lives have already been lost in Ireland in the pursuit of political goals. Bloodshed for political change prevents the only change that truly matters: in the human heart.”

On dialogue

“I took the view that, if the killing of human beings on our streets could be ended by direct dialogue, then it was my duty to attempt to do just that.”

“You’re in politics to solve problems, not just to win seats.”

“My party had a clear philosophy throughout. We should have institutions that respected the differences of the people and that gave no victory to either side.”

“I want to see Ireland as an example of what can be achieved by living for ideals, rather than fighting for them, and by viewing each and every person as worthy of respect and honour.”

“This is about principled compromise, not compromised principles.”

“We’re much closer together in the world today than we ever were in the past. Given that it is a much smaller world, we are in a stronger position to shape that world.”

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2 Comments

  1. “John Hume is the only person to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Gandhi Peace Prize, and the Martin Luther King Award”.

    John Hume was also devout Catholic and a Knight of St. Gregory, an order of chivalry bestowed by upon those laypeople who have contributed greatly to the Catholic Church. As the Irish Times remarks this morning he was a man of “strong faith”. Interesting that Hume is often mentioned among Gandhi and Martin Luther King, two other men of non-violence who held strong faith.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to compare Hume, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, with, let’s say, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and contrast their respective attitudes to (i) non-violence; and (ii) belief in God?

    Food for thought, eh? Perhaps there are some other “lessons” from Hume that might be worth learning…

  2. All the quotations in Michael Nugent’s essay are neutral in terms of religious faith. The principles expressed by John Hume derive from a deeply ingrained sense of social justice and respect for human life. It may be that he was inspired by Catholic theology but the ideas he expressed were those of human rights – not uniquely religious or Catholic. The comparisons of leaders is oversimplified…the Roman Catholic Church signed concordats with murderous dictators when it suited its interests – Mussolini (1929), and Hitler (1933), and gave its full support to Franco.

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