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February 28, 2005
Nobel Peace Prize winner discusses Northern Ireland
BY eric rangus
In helping broker a 1994 cease fire between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Unionist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume looked across the Atlantic to the United States for inspiration.
"I visited the grave of Abraham Lincoln, and I read the philosophies of the founding fathers, which really should be the philosophy of the whole world," said Hume, who spoke to a standing room only crowd in White Hall, Friday, Feb. 18. His address, "The Peace Process in Northern Ireland and the Benefits of the Cease-Fire," was sponsored by the Halle Institute for Global Learning.
"E pluribus unum. From many we are one," he said. "The essence of our unity is respect for our diversity." In addition to Lincoln, Hume listed Martin Luther King Jr. as one of his inspirations--especially his approach in using nonviolent means to achieve change in a world of violence. And few places in the world have seen as much violence in the last half century as Northern Ireland.
Hume said in 30 years of fighting between the IRA, which supports a united Ireland, and Unionists, who want to remain part of Great Britain, one out of every 500 people in Northern Ireland was killed, and one in 50 was maimed by bombs or bullets. While the sources of conflict are many and date back before the 17th century, Hume said a primary factor was the Protestants Unionists' desire to protect their identity.
"You have every right to protect your identity," Hume told the crowd, repeating a phrase he often uttered in his homeland--he is a native of Derry and served 21 years in the British Parliament. "But we can't have a solution without you. You have to come to the table."
To the IRA, Hume's persuasion was slightly different. "You are saying you want to unite the island," he said. "The only way to reach an agreement on how to live together is to lay down your arms."
In his address, Hume mixed in recollections from his work on the cease-fire, which included secret talks with leaders of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political arm (for which Hume was strongly criticized), with calls to action aimed at the many students in attendance.
"Younger people are going to be the leaders of the new century," he said. "I hope you are going to create a world where there is no longer any conflict."
Creating that world is something Hume has worked decades to achieve. His political career began in 1969 when he was elected to the Northern Ireland Parliament. He founded and led the non-sectarian Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which he led until 2001. Hume also served in the European Parliament from 1979-2004.
For much of that time, he was the lone voice of moderation in his homeland. After his many years of work paid off with the 1994 cease-fire and the signing of the 1998 Belfast Agreement (also known as the "Good Friday Agreement"), which promised self-determination in Northern Ireland and created the Northern Ireland Assembly, Hume was awarded the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble.
Geraldine Higgins, associate professor of English and director of Irish studies, called Hume "one of the most important political figures in the history of Ireland."
"In the way that a generation of Americans remember where they were when JFK was shot, no one in Northern Ireland will forget where we were when news of the IRA cease-fire broke in August 1994, an event which John Hume had worked toward his entire political life," said Higgins, a native of County Antrim, Northern Ireland.
Despite a spirited question-and-answer session that included discussion about whether the Belfast Agreement was still relevant (Alisdair McDonnell, deputy leader of the SDLP and a guest at the event, stood up at this point and pronounced that it was), there was a good bit of levity, too.
Hume said the Irish are the world's most traveled people, noting that the island is home to only 5 million persons but the United States has more than 35 million Irish-Americans. He also said the Irish founded France's wine industry. "We have always been the most spiritual people in the world," he said, downing a phantom beverage.