John Hume Talks
John Hume has been at the centre of Northern Irish politics for nearly three decades. He spoke to Maria O-Loughlin about a lifetime committed to the community.
What were your parents like?

My father was very active in the community, in the sense that he was a brilliant had-writer. People used to come to him to write their letters and for me normality would sitting at a wooden table at night doing my homework and one of the neighbours would be in getting letters written. The letters would be about their problems and to me as a child, the problems of people were normality - unemployment and housing and so on. So from a very early age, I was aware of what the problems were. My mother was a very warm person, very outgoing person and she was well known in the neighbourhood. When she went downtown shopping on the bus, she used to bring back goods for the older neighbours who weren't able to travel. There was that great sense of sharing among people.

They were very committed to education weren't they?

I remember one time when I was doing my homework studying my books in the house, my father said, "Stick at those books, son. It's a the only way forward," and of course he was dead right. We were the first generation to get free education beyond primary school. I passed the Eleven Plus examination as it was called, in its very first year. When I was able to go to St. Coum's College, my parents were astonished because they couldn't have afforded to send me there and I was the first in our whole family to go there and first to get a university scholarship later on.

Was that a turning point for you?

I think there's absolutely no doubt about it that education changed the complete course of my life. I often thought when I was growing up in Derry, we had an awful lot of "street" characters and they were all very funny people. I tell stories about hem to this day because of their great sense of humour, but they had no real jobs. One of them used to collect jam jars 'round the houses and another did advertising at half-time at the football matches in Bradywell. I was asked recently, "Why are there no such characters in Derry today?" and I said, "They've all passed their Eleven Plus and they're all university professors." They were obviously highly intelligent people who didn't have an outlet for their intelligence.

Tell me about your time studying in Maynooth.

The one thing I remember Maynooth for was its very high level of education. My professor of history was Cardinal O'Fiaich and he was an absolutely brilliant history professor. He really brought history to life and of course later on after I graduated in French and History, I went and did a master's degree in History. I wrote about Derry in the nineteenth century. History shaped a lot of my thinking about the country and its future.

Did that make you want to give something back?

When I went back to Derry, I immediately got involved in community because I believed that people like myself who had been lucky had a duty to those in our community who weren't so luck to help them in whatever way that we could. I was very heavily involved in the foundation of the credit union movement setting up the Derry Credit Union which was the first Credit Union in the North. From 1964-1968, I was President of the Credit Union League of Ireland. I regard the Credit Union as one of the greatest movements in the history of Ireland.

How did you get into politics?

I also got involved, you see, in housing. Myself and Fr. Mulvey set up the first housing association in Ireland as well. In the first year, we housed a hundred families, and in addition to building houses, we were advising people on how to go about housing, but then we put in major plans to build 700 houses and the local authority, which was Unionist-controlled, wouldn't give us planning permission. That led me straight into the civil rights movement, which led me directly into politics.

Was Martin Luther King an influence on you?

The '60s was when the Civil Rights Movement began in Northern Ireland and that was the period of Marin Luther King as well. He was an enormous influence. He was very strongly committed to his approach to non-violence, even when you were being beaten on the streets, the message was don't retaliate. Let the world see who the real aggressor is. When I was growing up, the housing situation in the area was appalling. I don't know how the people stuck it - two to three families living in a house and the houses were small. It was really terrible, but the Civil Rights Movement achieved an awful lot. Unfortunately, the one area we didn't make progress was the jobs front. But one of the reasons for that was the start of the IRA campaign. To tackle the jobs problem, we needed investment, but the troubles gave a bad image to the outside world. So the investment stopped.

Is that why you promote non-violence?

My commitment to non-violence is very fundamental. The most fundamental right of all is the right to life and therefore there is no way that you can be involved in any activity designed to achieve civil or human rights if your method undermines the most fundamental human right of all. To me that's common sense.

Does that belief have a Christian basis for you?

I find it hard at times to understand sectarianism in Northern Ireland, given that the people who are most sectarian would present themselves as the most religious and being very Christian and I would simply want to remind them of the very fundamental message of Christianity, which is "Love thy Neighbour". So, therefore, I don't understand their sectarianism based on Christianity.

What are your hopes for the future?

My dream is that this generation will be the generation that takes the gun forever off our streets. With the telecommunications revolution, I believe that we can harness the Irish identity from right across the world - that will help us enormously in building the new Ireland of the next century. I'm looking forward to being a great offshore island of the United States of America and the United States of Europe.