John Hume’s legacy is that belief in change can make change happen

Posted on: 17 August 2020

The following opinion piece by Etain Tannam, Associate Professor of International Peace Studies, was published first in the Irish Independent

‘The Border is not a line on the map. It is a mental border built on fear, prejudice and misunderstanding and which can only be eradicated by developing understanding and friendship. This is the real task which faces those who genuinely want to solve the Irish problem. Its weakness is that it is undramatic. Its virtue is that it is the only way’. – John Hume, The Derry Journal, March 13, 1970.

It is poignant that John Hume’s death coincides nearly perfectly with the new Government’s Shared Island mission, as nothing reflects his influence more than the concept of the shared island, uniting people, not territory, a concept influenced greatly by his admiration for the EU model of post-war reconciliation. UK and Irish membership of the EU was assumed in the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland, an agreement that reflected Hume’s belief in the EU as a successful peace project.

However, Brexit ripped that assumption apart and reignited the issue of unification – of territory, not people. Northern Ireland’s majority vote to remain in the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum, including 85pc from nationalist communities, precipitated calls for a Border poll on unification, particularly from Sinn Féin.

Although Sinn Féin too referred to the aim of tolerance and respect for unionist identity, in 2019 it called for a Border poll in five years, and as such emphasis on consent and reconciliation seemed less central than holding a referendum within a relatively short time frame.

Only the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has the authority to call a referendum on unification. However, the Irish Government’s policy approach towards unification is obviously relevant to the management of the issue.

Rather than referring to unification, the new Programme for Government states “we will draw on the underlying core guiding philosophy of consent and respect for all traditions on our island in our efforts to achieve a consensus on a shared future”. Of key importance is that a new Shared Island unit has been created in the Department of the Taoiseach to “work towards a consensus on a shared island. This unit will examine the political, social, economic, and cultural considerations underpinning a future in which all traditions are mutually respected”.

The shared-island document is striking in various ways. It is the first time a government has set out a clear and detailed policy to Northern Ireland and Britain since the Brexit referendum in 2016 and indeed before then.

It seeks to manage strategically Brexit- induced tensions in Irish/Northern Irish and British-Irish inter-governmental relations. Also in Hume’s tradition, who viewed internal co-operation in Northern Ireland, cross-border co-operation, and British-Irish inter-governmental co-operation as equally important (the three strands of the 1998 agreement), the programme places all three firmly at its centre, emphasising working with the Northern Ireland Executive and UK government to achieve various policy outcomes.

A strategic review of British-Irish relations will occur in 2020/21 and the Government aims to reinvigorate Strands 2 and 3 of the Good Friday Agreement.

The shared-island document sets out to enhance the role of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference that comprises both governments and the British-Irish Council that comprises government representatives of Northern Ireland, Ireland, Westminster, Wales, Scotland and the Crown Dependencies.

It also pledges to re-energise the North-South Ministerial Council, dealing with cross-border co-operation in designated policy areas of mutual concern. The Government seeks to deepen cross-border relations and relations with the Westminster government, as well as bilateral relations with Scotland and Wales.

Mark Durkan, his first successor as SDLP leader, has emphasised that the Good Friday Agreement’s stipulation that unification should occur by majority decision-making rule was no accident or rushed decision. Hume, as a parliamentary democrat, was adamant that just as Northern Ireland’s status in the UK was based on majority support (unionists), so too should nationalists’ unification preference be implemented if they eventually formed a majority of the electorate.

It is positive the Taoiseach met with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and announced both governments have agreed to create new UK-Irish structures to be ready for the post-Brexit period.

As Brexit and the Covid pandemic create issues that demand communication, also as the commemoration of partition is imminent and the shared island section states the Government will “ensure that the Decade of Centenaries is marked in an inclusive, appropriate, and sensitive manner”, there will be consultation with Belfast and London.

Another lesson from Hume is that long-term persistence with a clear message achieves what seems unachievable. Micheál Martin shares both Hume’s tenacity and his long-term commitment to the shared island aim, just as the last government tenaciously lobbied the EU to protect the soft border.

The UK government failed to engage about Northern Ireland early on in the Brexit referendum process. However, although imminently engagement may be limited, another lesson from Hume is that long-term persistence with a clear message achieves what seems unachievable.

There are many potential pitfalls ahead, not least instability in the Coalition, exhaustion in reeling from one crisis to another (austerity, Brexit, Covid), and the complexity of building reconciliation without being accused of reneging on unification.

Hume’s legacy is that belief in change, even in the darkest of times, can make change happen. As Mick Fealty recently observed in the Slugger O’Toole blog, his legacy is not just the peace process of the past, but the shared island of the future.

  • Etain Tannam is Associate Professor of International Peace Studies, Trinity College Dublin.