A tale of two Derry men

Posted By: January 23, 2017


Tom Kelly. Irish News (Belfast). Monday, January 23, 2017

Tom Kelly. Irish News (Belfast). Monday, January 23, 2017

Martin McGuinness and John Hume with Pat Hume Vinny Coyle and Ivan Cooper on the 40th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.”

So, wrote Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities.

And so, in the past week, two men from the same city here in Northern Ireland marked two very different milestones. One was an evangelist for peace and the other a convert to peace. One was an architect brimming with grand designs and the other a builder providing the cement and bricks. Of course, I am speaking of John Hume and Martin McGuinness, two Derry men, both of whom in different ways took a less traveled road.

I first met John Hume while at the University. Naturally, I knew of him as he was a lion amongst polecats. I remember meeting him so clearly yet for unremarkable reasons. It was late May 1986, and I was walking along University Street when I noticed a disheveled looking Mr. Hume standing beside his car with the bonnet open. He had just left the then SDLP HQ, and his car battery had gone flat.

In the days before the mobile phone he went back to his HQ and called a mechanic but asked if I would stay by his car while he went to a meeting. The mechanic arrived, fixed the battery and to my surprise handed me the bill for immediate payment. It came to around £60 – which back then was a month’s drinking in Eglantine Inn. A week later I got a card from Mrs. Pat Hume containing £70 and thanked me for being such a good Samaritan.

The next time I saw Mr. Hume was two years later when I was working for the Democratic Party, and I was dispatched to pick him up at the airport to take him to Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. He had come directly from Brussels – the disheveled look was unchanged, and he had forgotten his baggage. Later that day I heard him address a reception of democratic senators and congressman and he held the room spellbound with his determined and passionate delivery about peace-making in Ireland.

He talked repetitively about the European experience of past parking histories, maintaining separate identities but working together. He looked at his audience and took from his pocket an American coin and read the inscription on it: “‘E Pluribus Unum’ – ‘out of many, one.’ In this great melting pot, you understand the concept – you know this is possible,” said Hume. John Hume became the indefatigable champion for peace. He was single-minded to the point that his pursuit of peace cost his party dearly.

At the center of everything to do with John Hume was the wellbeing of the human condition or conditions. He helped found the Credit Union movement freeing people from usury and money lenders. He got water-cannoned and battered walking for civil rights. He never advocated violence, and he never put a gun in the hand of any youth.

When recognized for his peace efforts he gave away his prize money to the Salvation Army and the Saint Vincent de Paul. His legacy is our peace and he walks amongst the pantheon of leaders, not just Irish ones like O’Connell and Parnell but Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

I didn’t so much meet Martin McGuinness as have a run-in with him in 2007 and it was over my column in this newspaper. Back then the new education minister and several of his colleagues were boasting about putting manners on everyone from the PSNI to the civil service. I took him to task, and he took to the paper to strongly rebut me – the fact that Nipsa disagreed with him – mattered little.

Over the years our dialogue improved – more so when he discovered some of my relatives shared his journey. McGuinness of all Sinn Féin ministers matured in office and became both gracious and generous. The IRA pathway he chose was not inevitable but no doubt he felt it was right. As deputy first minister he went out of his way to make gestures which outreached to the unionist community, often without any reciprocation.

He showed he was capable of building bridges. His exit from politics through ill health is a loss to everyone in Northern Ireland and more particularly now when leadership is needed. Both Hume and McGuinness cast long shadows, and their likes will not be seen again – unfortunately.