In November last year, I attended the SDLP Conference in Belfast and was priveleged to be in the Hall, when Miriam O’Callaghan presented John Hume with his award as “The Greatest Ever Irish Person”. Well deserved of course. Last night in Derry, John Hume and his wife Pat were honoured by their own people in an “Appreciation Night”. Yet the purpose of ths post is just to tell MY John Hume “story”.
In 1974, I worked in a Belfast building which had shared accomodation with a Norn Iron “Government Department” and John Hume was a Minister in the ill fated pos-Sunningdale “power sharing Executive”.
As my Employer was not the Ministry, we occasionally got advance warning of the impending arrival of a “Northern Ireland Office Minister” (such as the unlovely Don Concannon) and his civil service “entourage”. There was a peculiar protocol. The Minister and entourage would sweep past us and head for the elevators where access to “normal” people was restricted. The Minister and his entouage got priority.
One morning, we had not been informed of the visit of the Minister for Commerce, John Hume. I was standing in the foyer had just pressed the button to call the Elevator and the cars drew up and John Hume and a few others sailed in. And I was in their way. A Nobody. And Im thinking this is is a bit awkward. I was after all just 21 years old.
If there was any awkwardness, John Hume did not feel it. Addressing me by my first name, he simply asked me what I was “doing here”. For we had actually met in different circumstances a few weeks previously. And there I was in the elevator with John Hume and the entourage, who were not exactly thrilled to be sharing an elevator with a Nobody. But I think thats the thing about John Hume……….to him Nobody is a Nobody. We are all Somebody. Thats the sign of a Man who is thoroughly and absolutely decent. A small thing to John Hume in 1974. A big thing for me in 1974. And more than thirty seven years later still a big thing to me.
Young people may not get the context of this Story. The SDLP holding its Conference in the Europa Hotel, Belfast in December 1973 (the feckin Europa Hotel for Gods Sake) and becoming part of a power sharing Executive was the watershed moments when the nationalist community (and people like me) stopped being invisible. That power-sharing Executive only lasted a matter of months and it would be over twenty five years before it was revived (after the Good Friday Agreement).
Yet theres a lesson here. Stormont “sucks you in” (as Patsy McGlone put it recently). Nationalists are no longer “invisible”. They……oops…….WE……are occupying top jobs in the Public Sector and Sinn Féin and SDLP ministers walk in and out of Government Buildings while earnest young Special Advisors and flunkies in the entourage talk into cell phones. ”The Minister is running 15 minutes late but….” “The Ministers car is …..”. Nationalist MLAs eat in the Stormont Dining Room. Nationalist cuncillors are at ease in Councill Chambers, many have worn the “Lord Mayors” or Chairmans chain of office in our biggest cities, Belfast, Derry, Lisburn, Newry and many other towns. many nationalists are on Health and Education Boards, occupying high office.
Yet far too often they have forgotten their roots. They get “sucked in”.
And that really is what makes John Hume different. Nobel Prize winner and the holder of SEVENTY !!!!…….honoury doctorates around the World. Irelands Greatest Ever Person, who never forgets his roots.