John Hume: the price of secrecy

Photo from the Nobel Foundation archive.
The article was originally published in the Business Post on August 9-10, 2020 under the title ‘In a time of so many secrets Hume took flak for them all’. We are grateful for permission to reproduce it here.

Peace is made in secret. It cannot be otherwise: peacemaking efforts have to be shielded from attack until enough progress has been made to justify talking to a hated enemy. But secrecy has a price. In April 1993 that price was exacted from John Hume after he was seen in the company of Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams as they emerged from a house in Derry. They had been meeting clandestinely for more than 3 years, working on the text of a declaration that might help to end the IRA campaign. The revelation brought a hail of condemnation down on Hume’s head for ‘talking to terrorists’.

In the midst of these sustained attacks on Hume, in August 1993, I took a bus from Belfast to Derry to interview him for the PhD thesis I was then writing about Derry in the early years of the Troubles. We met in the SDLP office near the city centre. I had never interviewed someone in a setting that looked so disorganised and unprepared. It felt like we were in a box room used for storage. He apologised for the space and mentioned that he wasn’t often in the building. It was an indication of the disconnect between Hume’s high-level efforts to bring an end to the conflict and the routine work of the party he led. I had lived in Derry for the best part of a year in 1987-88 and had studied pre-Troubles political activism in the city. I was used to building a good rapport with interviewees in Derry, partly on the basis of this fairly deep local knowledge, but throughout the interview with Hume there was little sense of rapport developing. He remained guarded, careful of everything he said. I had no appreciation at the time of the extent of the secrets he was guarding.

Unknown to all but a few people, Hume’s meetings with Adams were part of a wider network of secret connections involving both the British and Irish governments. For good reasons of its own the British state had been moving deliberately, if hesitantly, towards a compromise settlement since 1989, and Hume’s efforts fitted well with their strategic priorities. When Peter Brooke was appointed as Secretary of State in 1989 Hume told him of his meetings with Adams and kept the Northern Ireland Office briefed over the following years. Unknown to Hume, the British government also opened a secret channel of its own to the Republican leadership in April 1991, appointing an MI6 officer to maintain a line of communication through intermediary Brendan Duddy, a Derry businessman who had grown up around the corner from Hume and had  known him all his life.

Hume was working even more closely with the Irish government, consulting regularly with Taoiseach Charles Haughey from 1989 onwards. In 1991 he gave Haughey a draft of a proposed declaration. Senior Irish officials worked on editing the document and in early 1992 Haughey sent it to British Prime Minister John Major and urged that the two governments make a joint declaration. Major declined but later that year Haughey’s successor Albert Reynolds intensified these efforts, authorising secret meetings between his advisor Martin Mansergh and Republican leader Martin McGuinness.

When the Hume-Adams talks were revealed these contacts by both governments were still hidden from view. Only Hume’s head was visible above the parapet and he became a lightning rod for opponents of an inclusive peace settlement. Loyalist paramilitaries began to cite the Hume-Adams talks to justify their assassinations of Catholic civilians. There was an onslaught of criticism from a group of commentators mostly based in the Republic of Ireland. As many have testified, these rhetorical attacks put Hume under immense pressure and almost prompted him to abandon his efforts.

At the end of October 1993, A few months after I had interviewed Hume, I returned to Derry. It had been a bad week in Belfast and a difficult time for anyone advocating negotiation with the IRA. On 23 October an IRA bomb attack on the Shankill Road had killed nine Protestant civilians and one of the two bombers when the bomb exploded prematurely. Loyalists carried out several attacks in the following days. There was tension in the city, a feeling that it was not wise to go out at night until the cycle of retaliation had been fully played out.

It was with a sense of relief then that I travelled back to Derry that weekend with friends for the city’s Halloween celebrations. Violence in Derry had dwindled in recent years and it felt like the Troubles had almost come to an end there. It was a measure of the relaxed atmosphere that among the crowds in elaborate home-made costumes on Halloween night some were dressed up as RUC officers and British soldiers. In the Dungloe bar in Waterloo Street it seemed like everyone was in costume. But later that evening the atmosphere in the bar changed abruptly. Bar staff rushed to the doors, quickly shut and bolted them and told us not to leave. Loyalist gunmen had attacked a bar in Greysteel, we were told, and the Dungloe had just received a phone call to tell them that the attackers had shouted as they left: ‘The Dungloe is next’. It reinforced a sense that Greysteel, a predominately Catholic rural district several miles from the city, had stood in that night for Hume’s hometown of Derry, an easier target than the city itself. The gunmen had shot dead eight people.

When we emerged from the Dungloe later that evening, the tension was palpable. A reveller dressed as a British soldier was being harangued by another man in a side street. A man in his twenties stood patiently in the shadows of the next street, a large rock in each hand. When an RUC landrover rounded the corner at the top of Shipquay street he hurled the rock high up in the air. It smashed into the middle of the windscreen. Large-scale rioting went on for hours. Rioters, many of them in their Halloween costumes, hurled stones and then petrol bombs, while police fired plastic bullets and lines of armoured landrovers pushed the crowds into the Bogside.

At the funeral of those killed at Greysteel a few days later John Hume broke down in tears. For those who were sympathetic to his efforts the footage crystallised a sense of anger at the relentless attacks on him. But just weeks later there was a dramatic turn of events: details of the British government’s secret back-channel to the Republican leadership were leaked. In the febrile atmosphere created by this exposure the British and Irish governments negotiated intensely. Just a few weeks later they made a joint declaration based in large part on the text that had emerged from the Hume-Adams talks. In the space of eight months Hume had gone from vilification to vindication, but it had been a rocky and uncertain road. The onslaught Hume faced when talks were exposed shows vividly why peacemaking efforts so often take place in secret. If things had gone differently Hume’s reputation might never have recovered. And if the House of Commons had reacted differently John Major’s government might well have been toppled. Ultimately, however, the exposure of the Hume-Adams talks, and subsequently of the British back-channel, helped to accelerate progress towards a settlement, breaking the taboos around contact and revealing the extensive public support that existed for Hume’s vision of a negotiated compromise settlement. Sinn Féin would be the big electoral winners of the peace process, overtaking the SDLP to become the leading nationalist party. But it was ideas that Hume and the SDLP had been advocating for decades that would dominate the eventual settlement, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.


Niall O Dochartaigh

Niall Ó Dochartaigh is Personal Professor of Political Science and Sociology at NUI Galway. Deniable Contact, his book on back-channel negotiation during the Northern Ireland conflict will be published in 2021 by Oxford University Press.