Former US President Bill Clinton today gave a passionate tribute to John Hume – not only as a remarkable statesman and human being– but a man whose enduring legacy of the Northern Ireland peace process has since helped heal political rifts across the globe.
peaking to broadcaster Philip Boucher-Hayes on RTE Radio One’s ‘Drivetime’ programme this evening, Mr Clinton described Mr Hume as “a remarkable man” whose absence from the world stage in recent years after he was diagnosed with dementia has not gone unnoticed.
“He was a remarkable man who could have been very valuable to the world at full steam over the last two or three years when all over the world people were celebrating divisive characters – people who treated their political opponents as less than human and had no respect for anybody else and seemed to be rewarded for it in certain circles,” he said.
“John was the very opposite of that. He was a determined advocate for peace in Northern Ireland but he would deal with anyone who was duly elected and try to win them over,” he said.
On a personal note, he said of Mr Hume, “he became a friend. You couldn’t help be friendly with him. It was easy because I shared his goals, we wanted to get to a peace agreement but I also appreciated the fact that he had fought too long and hard and still managed to be a real person with a real life.”
“I just admired him and I liked him and he was good company, I loved being with him,” he added.
Along with crediting the former SDLP leader and Nobel Laureate for “giving the children of Northern Ireland a peaceful future,” he described Mr Hume as someone whose counsel he could rely when the US first got involved in the Northern Ireland peace process.
“And so I studied everything I could about his career and what he had done and how he had managed through the hard times and it convinced me that if the United States took the position of rigorously supporting a non-violent, peaceful solution to this that would save everybody we might actually be able to play a positive role and he was the image of that for me,” he said.
He added: “Every time I saw him I felt this great tide of admiration and affection and enjoyment of his company but it also inspired me to just keep going,” he said of the negotiations.
“I thought ‘we need to do this. This is the face that the Irish present to the world and I always thought the North would always be better off getting along than continuing to fight and I still believe that.”
He also said that it was Mr Hume who encouraged him to take ‘a leap of faith’ and when the US controversially issued former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams a visa to visit the US.
“He was always above the fray in a way but he sure knew when to get involved. I took all that heat for giving Gerry Adams a visa, you remember, but he thought it was time,” he said.
“He (Hume) said ‘I think it’s worth the risk’. He said it may not work out but I think you ought to do it. Now, that had a real impact on me because at the time the then-British government was going crazy, my own State Department was against it and I thought, ‘here’s John Hume who has stood up for non-violence throughout the entire length of The Troubles, saying ‘it’s time to take a leap of faith.”
Mr Clinton said that ‘leap of faith’ not only ultimately led to the Good Friday Agreement, the model employed during the peace process, which he described as “you’re either going to share the future or treat it like a peace of pie to divide up” has been a successful template used by the US in brokering peace in other trouble spots around the world.
“It was basically a roadmap that could be adapted virtually everywhere,” he said.
“I thought this is what we ought to try to do, some version of this in all of these other troubled places around the world and I still believe that.”
Meanwhile, Senator George Mitchell, who acted as Special Envoy to Northern Ireland under the Clinton administration, described Mr Hume as one of Ireland’s greatest ever people.
“John Hume was one of the greatest persons in Irish history, an advocate for and an architect of peace. He was rightly recognised as a fearless leader who devoted his life to the cause of peace in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“He was a close and dear friend to me. All who knew and admired him will miss him very much.”