All achievers

John Hume

Nobel Prize for Peace

If thousands of soldiers in our streets can't stop the violence, then if I can save one single human life by talking, it's my duty to do so.

John Hume was born in the city of Derry, in Northern Ireland. In the British-ruled northern counties of the partitioned island, Catholics suffered keenly from discrimination in employment and housing. The oldest child of a Catholic family in the Bogside district of Derry, John Hume belonged to the first generation in Northern Ireland to have access to free public education, and he seized the opportunity to escape the seemingly endless cycle of poverty and unemployment. At first, he planned to study for the priesthood, but after three years of religious studies, he determined to serve his community by other means. He graduated from the National University of Ireland in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in French and history. He spent several summers studying in France, at St. Malo, Brittany and at the Institut Catholique in Paris. He received his master’s degree from St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland in 1964.

December 1973: Brian Faulkner of the UUP, Gerry Fitt and John Hume of the SDLP during an Irish Unity conference in Sunningdale, England, December 1973. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS )
December 1973: Brian Faulkner of the UUP, Gerry Fitt and John Hume of the SDLP, during an Irish Unity conference in Sunningdale, England. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)

On returning to Derry, he taught in the local schools, and began looking for other ways to relieve the distress of his community. With a few friends, John Hume founded the Derry Credit Union, the first credit union in Northern Ireland. Modeled on similar institutions in the United States, the Derry Credit Union began with only four members and only seven pounds in its account; 36 years later it would have 14,000 members and assets of £ 21 million. By the time he was 27, John Hume was president of the island-wide Credit Union League of Ireland and vice president of an international credit union movement. In 1964 Hume helped establish the Derry Housing Association to relieve the city’s housing shortage. The association built many homes, but soon met resistance from the city government, which feared any change in the city’s carefully drawn electoral map.

Thwarted by the political system, Hume and his associates sought electoral reform through the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Inspired by the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., Hume counseled his followers to emulate Dr. King’s strategy of nonviolence, but nonviolent demonstrations were met with violent resistance, and the British Army entered the city to restore order. While trying to defuse a confrontation between demonstrators and the Army in 1968, Hume was repeatedly knocked down with a fire hose and finally arrested for “obstructing Her Majesty’s forces.” He was only fined £20, but he refused to pay, on principle, and appealed his case all the way to the House of Lords in Westminster, where his conviction was overturned.

September 6, 1994: Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams shakes hands with John Hume, while Albert Reynolds, Prime Minister of Ireland, looks on. (Matthew Polak/CORBIS SYGMA )
September 6, 1994: Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams shakes hands with John Hume, while Albert Reynolds, Prime Minister of Ireland, looks on. (Matthew Polak/CORBIS SYGMA)

In 1969, Hume was elected to the Northern Ireland Parliament, defeating a more hardline Nationalist candidate. The following year, Hume and his associates founded the non-sectarian Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). In 1971, the British government responded to the SDLP and the fair housing marchers by creating a central independent housing authority, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, to take control of public housing out of the hands of the local authorities.

By the time this reform relieved the housing crisis, armed extremists on both sides of the conflict had embarked on a devastating cycle of murder and retaliation. In 1972 the British Government terminated regional government in Northern Ireland and began direct rule from London. The following year, both Britain and Ireland joined the European Economic Community (forerunner of the European Union), and John Hume increasingly looked to the example of European unity for a solution to the problems of Northern Ireland. In 1979, Hume was elected to represent Northern Ireland in the European Parliament at Strasbourg; that same year, he was chosen as leader of the SDLP.

May 21, 1998: David Trimble, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and John Hume await the result of an island-wide referendum on the Northern Ireland peace agreement. (Alan Lewis/CORBIS SYGMA )
May 21, 1998: David Trimble, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and John Hume await the result of an island-wide referendum on the Northern Ireland peace agreement. (Alan Lewis/CORBIS SYGMA)

In 1983, Hume was elected for the first time to represent the constituency of Foyle in the House of Commons at Westminster. Voters in Northern Ireland increasingly turned away from more extreme parties to embrace the nonviolent, nonsectarian approach of the SDLP. In 1985, the governments of Britain and Ireland reached their first major agreement over Northern Ireland since the 1920s. Both governments confirmed that there would be no change in the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of a majority of its citizens, and the British government recognized, for the first time, a consultative role for the Irish government in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

Hume now undertook one of the most delicate actions of his career, initiating private talks with Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Féin, a party ostensibly committed to the unconditional unification of Ireland, by violence if necessary. It would take five years for these talks to bear fruit. When they became public in 1993, both men were subjected to ferocious criticism, and physical attacks were made on the homes of SDLP members. But the Hume-Adams Initiative opened the door for Britain’s affirmation in the Downing St. Declaration that it had no selfish interest in retaining control over Northern Ireland if the population of the region should freely choose unification with Ireland.

The 1998 Nobel Peace Prize laureates, John Hume, right, and David Trimble, display the medals which they received during the peace prize awards ceremony in Oslo Town Hall in Norway on Thursday, December 10, 1998. (Micheline Pelletier/Corbis SYGMA)
The 1998 Nobel Peace Prize laureates, John Hume, right, and David Trimble, display the medals which they received during the peace prize awards ceremony in Oslo Town Hall in Norway on Thursday, December 10, 1998.

Hume seized the opportunity to pressure the governments in Dublin and London to enter into talks with all parties to the conflict. He traveled frequently to the United States to enlist American support for the peace process, and American investment in Northern Ireland’s struggling economy. He became such a familiar figure in the halls of the U.S. Congress that Capitol observers took to calling him the “101st Senator.” He found an attentive listener in U.S. President Bill Clinton, who in 1995 became the first U.S. President to visit Belfast and Derry, lending visible American support for multi-party talks.

An unexpected partner joined the peace process in 1995 when the mainstream Unionist Party, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), chose a new leader. David Trimble had been a Unionist member of Parliament for five years when he won an upset victory in his Party’s leadership contest. His hardline reputation suggested that he intended to draw the party away from any agreement with other parties in Northern Ireland, and from any contact with the Irish government. To the surprise of his followers, he agreed to meet with John Hume, and with leaders of the major parties in Ireland.

March 17, 2000: U.S. President Bill Clinton meets with John Hume in the Oval Office. Clinton kick-started the stalled Northern Ireland peace process in separate meetings with its key players. (AFP/CORBIS)
March 17, 2000: U.S. President Bill Clinton meets with John Hume in the Oval Office. Clinton kick-started the stalled Northern Ireland peace process in separate meetings with its key players. (AFP/CORBIS)

Former U.S. Senator George J. Mitchell was invited by the British and Irish governments to chair the peace negotiations that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Trimble signed on, over the objections of more than half of his parliamentary colleagues. He won them to his point of view and campaigned vigorously in the island-wide referendum that ratified the agreement, an accomplishment for which he shared the Nobel Prize for Peace with John Hume in 1998. Although there were many difficulties yet to be overcome, these brave men had set in place the foundation of a lasting peace.

David Trimble served as First Minister for the first five years of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, and struggled mightily to sustain his party’s support for the power-sharing arrangement. In November 2003, elections for the Assembly resulted in dramatic gains for more extreme parties from both sides of the sectarian divide. At first, it appeared that these results would threaten the stability of the power-sharing agreement, but despite initial fears, the peace agreement has held. Isolated incidents of violence have taken place, but a return to armed conflict has been soundly rejected by the great mass of the population on both sides of the sectarian divide.

David Trimble addresses the Academy student delegates and members at the symposium held at Trinity College during the 2002 International Achievement Summit in Dublin, Ireland. (© Academy of Achievement)
David Trimble addresses the Academy student delegates and members at the symposium held at Trinity College during the 2002 International Achievement Summit in Dublin, Ireland. (© Academy of Achievement)

In May 2005, David Trimble was defeated for re-election to the British Parliament and stepped down as leader of the UUP. The party’s representation in Parliament had fallen to a single seat, out of 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland. The following year, David Trimble received a lifetime appointment to the House of Lords and was named Baron Trimble of Lisnagarvey. He did not stand for re-election to the Northern Ireland Assembly at the next election. On joining the House of Lords as a working peer, he joined the Conservative Party, and has proposed an alliance between the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionist Party. He is expected to play a significant role in any future conservative government in Britain.

October 23, 2010: John Hume pictured in his home city of Derry. John Hume was voted "Ireland's Greatest Person Ever" by hundreds of thousands of citizens in an Irish television program after a five-week contest. Hume not only help bring an end to the Troubles in the North, he fundamentally changed attitudes on the 800 years of bitterness and strife that blighted Ireland. (Martin McKeown/Press Eye)
October 23, 2010: John Hume pictured in his home city of Derry. John Hume was voted “Ireland’s Greatest Person Ever” by hundreds of thousands of citizens in an Irish television program after a five-week contest. Hume not only help bring an end to the Troubles in the North, he fundamentally changed attitudes on the 800 years of bitterness and strife that blighted Ireland. (Martin McKeown/Press Eye)

John Hume served for three years in the Northern Ireland Assembly. He continued to serve in the Parliaments of Europe and the United Kingdom until 2004, when he retired from electoral office. He remains one of the elder statesmen of European politics, a powerful voice on issues related to the Credit Union movement, European integration and global poverty. In the words of former U.S. President Clinton, John Hume remains “Ireland’s most tireless champion for civil rights and its most eloquent spokesman for peace.”

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2002

“Over the years, the barriers of the past — the distrust and prejudices of the past — will be eroded, and a new society will evolve, a new Ireland based on agreement and respect for difference.”

In the last 30 years, political violence in Northern Ireland has claimed over 3,500 lives, but John Hume never abandoned the quest for a peaceful solution. Inspired by the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., the young ex-seminarian led a nonviolent civil rights movement in his home town of Derry. As a founder and head of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, as a Member of the European Parliament, and as a member of Britain’s House of Commons, he has worked continuously for peace, tolerance and international cooperation.

He set aside partisan differences to meet with rival parties, and braved the ancient sectarian divide to negotiate with Unionist leaders in talks which led to the 1993 Joint Declaration by Britain and Ireland, and the 1994 cease-fire agreement between the IRA and Unionist paramilitaries. The 1998 Good Friday agreement, ratified overwhelmingly by voters in Ireland, North and South, reflects principles John Hume has followed for his entire public life.

His efforts were recognized when he and the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998. These men dared to look past centuries of conflict in their country and imagine a future where people of all religions can live together in peace and freedom.

Watch full interview

(John Hume and David Trimble were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1998 for their efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland. The Academy of Achievement interviewed both men in Dublin, Ireland at the International Achievement Summit on June 8, 2002. Their video interviews are combined here.)

Mr. Hume, when you became leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, you were looking for a new approach to the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Keys to success — Integrity

We were strongly opposed, myself and my party were strongly opposed to violence, and to the IRA in particular because we argued that when we were a divided people, that violence could not heal the divisions. It only deepened the divisions and made the problem worse. And, of course, violence from one side always led to violence from the other as well, and you had the doctrine of “an eye for an eye,” which, as Mahatma Gandhi did say, leaves everybody blind. So we strongly opposed violence throughout, and what we did was present our analysis of the problem, saying that the people of Northern Ireland were divided, but they were divided about three sets of relationships. They were divided about the relationships within Northern Ireland, and they were divided about the relationships within Ireland, and they were divided about the relationship with Britain. And that for the problem to be solved, that those three sets of relationships should be the agenda at any talks. And given that that should be the agenda, then the British and Irish governments should be together at the table with all the parties.

May 19, 1998: U2 singer Bono helps David Trimble and John Hume celebrate victory in the island-wide referendum on the Northern Ireland peace agreement. (Alan Lewis/CORBIS SYGMA )
May 19, 1998: U2 singer Bono helps David Trimble and John Hume celebrate victory in the island-wide referendum on the Northern Ireland peace agreement. (Alan Lewis/CORBIS SYGMA)

That was our strategy from the beginning. That eventually was achieved in 1998, when we all got ’round the table and got that agreement. But in those days, the British government would not talk to the Irish government about Northern Ireland, because its policy was that Northern Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom, full stop. Therefore, it was none of the business of the Irish government, ignoring the real problem, which was the conflict of two identities: the Britishness of the Unionist people, and the Irishness of the Catholic people, the Nationalist people.

In 1988, you initiated dialogue with Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin, which was a highly controversial move. You endangered your own life. Why was that such an important step, in your view?

Keys to success — Courage

John Hume: The IRA and Sinn Féin, what was called the Republican movement, were engaged in violence in order to attempt to solve our problem, and I was strongly opposed to that violence. And, of course, there was violence as well from the Unionist side, the loyalist paramilitaries, and of course, I felt it’s everyone’s duty to do everything they could to get the violence stopped. And, of course, thousands of British soldiers in our streets couldn’t stop the violence. And when I started my dialogue, of course, I was very heavily attacked for it. But, as I made clear at the time, if thousands of soldiers in our streets can’t stop the violence, if I can save one single human life by talking, it’s my duty to do so. And, I engaged directly in dialogue with Gerry Adams. And, of course, the dialogue arose out of the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985, and my party, we were very heavily involved in the creation of that agreement.

We published a policy document in April 1981, and if you read that policy document, you’re reading the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985. We argued strongly that, given the three sets of relationships, the British and Irish governments should come together and set up institutions, and those institutions were set up in the Anglo-Irish agreement.

The basic policy of the British government was that since the majority of people in Northern Ireland wished to remain in the United Kingdom, that was that. We asked what would happen if the majority wanted something else, if the majority wanted to see Irish unity. The British government then agreed to say, “Well, if that happens, we legislate for it.” That removed the fundamental reasons that the IRA had always given for the use of violence. The historian in me knew what created the IRA and that movement. 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. I then came out with a statement and said, “Britain has now declared their neutrality on the future of Ireland, and therefore, violence has absolutely no role to play.” By keeping up that statement, I eventually got a message back that the Sinn Féin people would like to talk to me about it.

I engaged in the talks with Gerry Adams, and the basic request to me was to prove what I was saying was true. I kept both the British and Irish governments fully informed of my dialogue with Gerry Adams, and in the end, I asked them to prove what I was saying was true, which led to the Downing Street Declaration, which made very clear that the British had no selfish economic or strategic interests in remaining in Ireland, and that if people agreed on Irish unity, they would legislate for it. That led straightaway to the cease fires, and led also to the dialogue with all parties and the two governments around the one table.

November 19, 1999: David Trimble briefs the media before speaking to a meeting at his party's headquarters in Belfast.(Reuters NewMedia Inc./CORBIS)
November 19, 1999: David Trimble briefs the media before speaking to a meeting at his party’s headquarters in Belfast. (Reuters NewMedia Inc./CORBIS)

Mr. Trimble, in 1995 you were chosen to lead the Ulster Unionist Party. Why were you chosen?

David Trimble: The delegates of the Ulster Unionist Council made the choice, and they chose me. My pitch to the council was that I was going to change the way we did things. Instead of the defensive mindset that, unfortunately, had dominated Unionists up until then, I would make a serious effort to achieve things, and for that purpose I would prepare to go and meet people and talk to people that, in the past, we hadn’t talked to.

Including Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin?

David Trimble: In the first instance, that actually meant John Hume, who was my first point of call, and it also meant going to Dublin and speaking to the Irish Prime Minister, which, again, we had not done. Gerry Adams was down at the end of that trail, not the beginning, because in 1995, with the situation where we were not engaged at that stage, not engaged in a serious direct discussion with Irish Nationalists or with the Irish government. Now, in doing that and talking to these people, I was not changing our political stance one iota. We are still a Unionist party that is there for the union of the United Kingdom, and very firmly dedicated to that. What I was doing was changing the approach on things, and indeed, trying to get a political agreement which would create and provide for stability, political stability in Northern Ireland. Now, from ’95 to ’98, we did actually achieve that.

March 17, 2000: St. Patrick's Day in Washington. Bill Clinton receives Gerry Adams, John Hume and David Trimble at the White House. (CORBIS SYGMA )
March 17, 2000: St. Patrick’s Day in Washington. Bill Clinton receives Gerry Adams, John Hume and David Trimble at the White House. (CORBIS SYGMA)

Mr. Hume, how did you envision a peace agreement between parties with such differing points of view?

John Hume: In coming to that agreement, my party had a clear philosophy throughout. In Northern Ireland, we should have institutions that respected the differences of the people and that gave no victory to either side. In other words, we always argued for partnership government, or power sharing, as it was called. Representatives of all sections of the community should be in government, and there should be a council of ministers between Ireland, North and South, that was our strategy. We argued strongly for that, and that was eventually agreed. I always say that in my approach to that agreement, I was very heavily inspired by my European experience, because I was a member of the European Parliament.

Keys to success — Vision

The European Union is the best example in the history of the world of conflict resolution. Therefore, it’s the duty of every area of conflict to study how they did it, and that’s what we did. And of course, the three principles at the heart of that are the three principles at the heart of our Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. Principle number one: respect for difference, no victory for either side. Number two: institutions which respect our differences, an assembly elected by a proportional system of voting, so that all sections of the people are represented, and an executive government elected by the assembly by a proportional system so that all sections are in government. Then the third principle, which in my opinion is the most important principle, which I call the healing process. We then work together, all sections of our people working together in our common interests, which is the principle that when our party was founded way back in the early ’70s, was central to common interests being real politics, economic development of our people, something which is in the area of agreement for all sections of people. And now we are doing that, working together. That’s the beginning of the healing process, as I say. We’re spilling our sweat together and not our blood.

My belief is that as we do that, over the years, the barriers of the past — the distrust and prejudices of the past — will be eroded, and a new society will evolve, a new Ireland based on agreement and respect for difference, in which Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter will be living together in agreement and mutual respect. That’s the strategy that myself and my party have pursued and are pursuing.

December 10, 1998: John Hume and David Trimble greet well-wishers from the balcony of the Grand Hotel in Oslo, Norway on the eve of the Nobel Prize ceremony. (CORBIS SYGMA )
December 10, 1998: John Hume and David Trimble greet well-wishers from the balcony of the Grand Hotel in Oslo, Norway on the eve of the Nobel Prize ceremony. (CORBIS SYGMA )

Mr. Trimble, what are you most proud of having accomplished up to this point, realizing that things are not completely settled?

Keys to success — Perseverance

David Trimble: One does have to point to the fact that we did achieve an agreement, that we had that agreement endorsed by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland; that despite very considerable political difficulties since then, we have actually managed to implement the greater part of the political agenda of that agreement, and we have restored local parliamentary institutions in Northern Ireland, that we have a local administration in place which is working, maybe not working ideally, but is still actually there. Those are the significant political developments that one’s had a hand in and obviously, one would point to that as being the things that one looks back at with most satisfaction, but I realize that it’s still work in progress.

Academy of Achievement's Awards Council member and Nobel Prize laureate Dr. James D. Watson presents the Academy's Golden Plate Award to John Hume at the 2002 International Achievement Summit in Dublin, Ireland.
Academy of Achievement’s Awards Council member and Nobel Prize laureate Dr. James D. Watson presents the Academy’s Golden Plate Award to John Hume at the 2002 International Achievement Summit in Dublin, Ireland.

Mr. Hume, what led you to believe a lasting peace was possible?

Keys to success — Vision

I always tell the story of the first time I went to Strasbourg in 1979, to the European Parliament. I went for a walk across the bridge from Strasbourg in France to Kehl in Germany. And I stopped in the middle of the bridge and meditated — 1979 — that if I had stood on this bridge 30 years ago, I thought, at the end of the Second World War, and at the end of the first half of that century, which was the worst in the history of the world, two world wars, and about a hundred million people slaughtered, who could have dreamt then that in the second half of that century, those same peoples would unite in a European Union? But they did.