John Hume taught us that change can be slow but worth the long haul

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood pictured with his predecessor, John Hume.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood pictured with his predecessor, John Hume.

As part of the 30th anniversary of the Foyle Film Festival, Derry’s Guildhall hosted a special screening of a documentary following the work and influence of John Hume in America last week.

The documentary has compiled an impressive range of interviews from US Presidents and Senators, Irish Taoisigh, British Prime Ministers and senior diplomats.

It charters John Hume’s immense diplomatic skill in steering the attention and shaping the attitude of the US body politic towards the conflict in Ireland.

As a recording of history, it unlocks a story often overlooked about the long years of work across the Atlantic which played such a crucial role in nurturing the peace process.

That work began with quiet conversations in the corridors of Congress and its success would lead to President Bill Clinton welcoming the newly won peace in Guildhall Square during the Christmas period of 1995.

The documentary also contains another power and value in attempting to balance and solidify a history constantly under threat of revision.

Too often, amidst the intense remembering of Northern Ireland’s past, truths have become blurred and the complexities of history have become simplified.

The story of our conflict has at times been reduced into the politically convenient falsehoods that it was either an internal sectarian conflict or some sort of popular revolutionary struggle against an old imperial power.

Worse still - the falsehood is told that violence was always inevitable.

Failing to confront those narratives will mean that the collective political memory of this place is caught in the paradox of always remembering yet forever forgetting.

You don’t have to look too far or read too much to know that those distortions also continue to infect today’s politics.

It is right, therefore, that if we are to remember – we must remember the truth of the time and we must remember those who lived to express that truth.

Much of that memory will always return to the political imagination and creativity of John Hume.

From the earliest signs of civil unrest in the North, John Hume rooted himself in the endeavour that Ireland was a place that had long known violence and known its futility.

From the waking hours of Civil Rights to the historic resolution of the Anglo-Irish conflict in 1998, John’s mission and mantra taught us that it is never violence but, ultimately, politics which actually builds the foundations of the future.

He taught us that rather than the death and grief borne from the choice of violence, politics is ultimately the most powerful weapon of all.

John took that message from the streets of Derry and sold it to the highest powers in Washington, London and Dublin.

He pushed against an ocean of opinion and history for some 30 years and eventually achieved an end to centuries of hatred and hurt between the islands of Britain and Ireland.

As all of us in Derry know, John’s sacrifice has taken a toll on his health, but we equally know that true sacrifice deserves true acknowledgement.

Every day of John Hume’s political life showed that living for Ireland is every bit as patriotic and powerful as dying for Ireland.

Perhaps more than anything, this documentary is a powerful insight into the art of achieving political progress.

John Hume’s example showed that there is always a long, slow journey in building the relationships which sow the seeds of change.

It is an insight into how change can arrive slowly, but that the prize of peace is worth that long-haul journey.

It shows that an unbreakable will and a spirit of compromise are not competing qualities in crafting a politics of partnership.

As Northern Ireland politics faces into deepening deadlock and division, this timely documentary is a powerful reminder of that timeless lesson.