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Sunday 3 January 2016


Provos used Hume to acquire veneer of respectability

OPPONENTS ON THE SAME TEAM: The then SDLP deputy leader and leader Seamus Mallon and John Hume

Republicans "used John Hume like you'd play a 3lb trout", said former First Minister Seamus Mallon in a BBC radio interview last week. "And he gave them the thing that they were looking for - that was, a respectable image in the United States." And so he did, for Hume consistently underestimated them.

Newly released Irish State papers record Hume in 1985 telling Sean Donlon of the Department of Foreign Affairs that he wanted talks with the IRA army council.

Donlon believed that the Provos had peaked and had run into "obvious military difficulties". Hume, he told Taoiseach Garrett FitzGerald, "seems to feel that he could significantly damage them in a confrontation".

Donlon, however, doubted "that he could at this stage discredit people like Adams and the provisional organisation in Belfast".

Donlon's judgement would prove to be right, but though Hume did not begin until 1988 the talks that became known as Hume-Adams, he had already revealed in other conversations his fatal flaw where Adams was concerned. He considered himself in every way his superior, denigrating Adams as an IRA "puppet".

Unlike Hume, Adams was a team player, with the discipline that comes with having to consult your immediate colleagues about both strategy and tactics.

In 1985, as British and Irish officials worked on the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Hume flew solo, lobbying politicians, officials and Washington relentlessly. He was a compelling orator and a man of extraordinary force of character and overwhelming self-belief, with a genius for persuading accomplished and influential people that he, and only he, had the solution to the problems of Northern Ireland.

Mostly, he ignored or bullied his colleagues, as in 1981 when he stopped his party contesting the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election against the IRA's Bobby Sands. Sands' victory was a priceless PR gain for the Provos.

Unlike Mallon, his deputy, who had friends among Ulster Protestants and indeed unionists, Hume's instincts were far more sectarian than his rhetoric and his preoccupation was always with nationalist opinion. In the months leading up to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985, Hume's colleagues knew little more than that there were talks going on. In May of that year, as DFA officials canvassed the opinion of senior SDLP people, one reported that Mallon was "deeply critical of John Hume" whom he "deeply distrusts".

Eddie McGrady told another that he "was particularly surprised that John Hume had not brought him into his confidence on at least some of the detail of the talks."

Four days before the agreement went public, Hume, Mallon, McGrady and Joe Hendron had a dinner with key negotiators in Dublin, who told them the details of the secret negotiations, with which, of course, Hume was already well acquainted.

In the loop at last, Mallon described the occasion as "one of the most moving he had ever experienced".
Unionists had been even more out of the loop than had Hume's colleagues. As Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said to Garret FitzGerald, her concessions to Irish nationalism might not look much "to Hume" but would bring out "the Paisleyites". As they did. But that in no way deflected Hume from continuing to do it his way.

British state papers in 1988 report a Northern Ireland minister telling McGrady that he found it difficult to reconcile a recent statement he had made regarding the relationship of the SDLP and Sinn Fein with the discovery that Adams and Hume had met in January. "Mr McGrady looked down at the table, said the two were not irreconcilable, but made no attempt to reconcile."

Mallon, the other SDLP representative present, added loyally that "whatever else was the outcome of the Hume/Adams meeting", Mr Hume would "not allow himself to be wrongfooted".

But he did and thus opened the corridors of power in Dublin, Washington and later London to the frontmen of the Provisional IRA, who in due course would wipe the floor with the SDLP electorally. Hume was "not a fool", said Mallon on the radio, "but he was so immersed in getting peace" that in effect he gave Adams and his colleagues "a certain validity".

The result, from Mallon's perspective, has been the triumph of the "bullies" who run "a two-party show" in "the niggling little place that Stormont is now", where they focus on winning "every little petty argument", rather than helping people to be at peace with their neighbours. The IRA has "tarnished the very name of republicanism in such a way that republicanism as a valid political position has been distorted".

Sinn Fein, of course, are furious: on social media Mallon is denounced by venomous republicans. One described him as "a bitter old man who always resented John Hume's giant shadow cowering and towering him into being afraid of peace".

Poor Hume is long lost to Alzheimer's. But at least honest Seamus Mallon is still about to tell it like it was.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards