The John Hume Show

John Hume in Derry during 1983 election campaign. Photo: Derek Speirs.

For John Hume, this last month may have been the busiest of his life. His supreme skills as a lobbyist, as a political broker, as a twister of guilty consciences, have been stretched to the limit; Desperate to be seen to be as busy politically as the Provisionals are militarily about the nation's unfinished business, Hume last year bludgeoned the political parties in the Republic into the New Ireland Forum. BY OLIVIA O'LEARY

The risks were obvious from the outset. Hume's plan to bestir the British presumed a hitherto impossible consensus on Northern Ireland between the parties in the Republic. He risked splitting the SDLP along the lines which have for 60 years divided Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. He has stretched the SDLP across' the San Andreas fault of the South's differences in Northern Ireland and already the cracks are beginning to show.

On Thursday, February 16, Seamus Mallon, the SDLP's deputy leader, threatened to resign, differing with Hume's and subsequently the party's decision to back an "all-options" Forum report as favoured by Garret FitzGerald and Labour. Charles Haughey, with Ray McSharry as his Republican' stalking horse, continues to argue for a report clearly backing a unitary state. The Mallon bugging incident and the disturbing evasiveness of the government has led to a sudden deterioration of relations between the main parties in the Forum at its most crucial stage. When FitzGerald tried to mend the fences last week, Mallon was seen to brush him off brusquely.

Now that all these rumblings have begun to shake the Forum's cosy constructiveness, will Fianna Fail cut and run for a minority report maintaining the traditional United Ireland line? Can all John Hume's political skill avoid a failure? Over the last month, Olivia O'Leary has been looking at Hume asa political operator, at his relations with the Dublin and Westminster governments, and at the pressures in Northern Ireland and within his own party which have led him to the edge of such a dangerous precipice, both for the SDLP and for the future of constitutional nationalism.

JOHN HUME IS A BIT LIKE GOD. FOR THOSE OF US WHOSE acquaintance with the North dates from the 1960s, it seems he was, is and always will be. He spends much of his time in the sky between a dozen different locations, And he speaks in veritable tablets of stone.

Television and the endless spotlight on Northern Ireland has created the feeling that he's larger than life, that the [indecipherable word] figure and the haughty face are as familiar as yesterday's paper if not tonight's news. But he also has an Almighty habit of declaring things, a bit like an oracle. His thoughts come ready prepared in long paragraphs, hung on extended adverbial clauses, impervious to any interruption by tetchy interviewers. He utters them as though they've been carved in marble ... tablets, as I say, of stone.

Hume has an almost Biblical sense of destiny - to lead his people into the promised New Ireland. To do that he asks for miracles - often, as the New Ireland Forum may prove, from those least able to deliver them. He regards as sacrosanct his role as leader of the North's lost tribe. If, to maintain that leadership, he and his party have to compromise on what politicians in the Republic might regard as principles, Hume expects the Republic to understand. They have told him often enough that he stands between them and the Provos. That position needs their unified and active support. It's a price John Hume has now demanded.

Hume knows that there has been a drift away from the one true faith of SDLP support among some Southern politicians in recent years notably in Fine Gael and Labour. There are those like John Bruton, who "doesn't like to beat the drum on Northern Ireland"; sceptics like John Boland and indeed Pat Cooney who feel uncomfortable with the move to greener nationalism.

In recent years those in the Republic who once feted the SDLP as weary warriors fighting the good fight, became less fulsome in their welcome. Dublin is a fickle city, and as the North turned from a sudden drama into an unending saga, it tired of the Rabelesian nights on the town, the endless talk of solutions. Certain hoteliers stopped picking up the tabs, journalists turned to the more immediate domestic controversies, and the advent of Charles Haughey as a new challenger for the mantle of nationalism brought the focus away from Northern nationalists to Dublin.

For Hume, who feels naturally at home in the Republic, and who admits that a weight still lifts from his shoulders as he crosses the border going south, that coolness particularly from the coalition parties, was hard to take. He's still somewhat bitter towards the Young Fine Gael Turks who turned up their noses at the SDLP and who criticised the party roundly for its failure to fight the Fermanagh-South Tyrone by-elections and for its abstentionist position on the Assembly. It's not a bitterness extended to Garret FitzGerald whom Hume by all accounts can wind around his little finger. FitzGerald, to the perturbation of his own party, moved political position more than once to keep in step with Hume. Nor does he blame Peter Barry who, he says, "stayed with us in the hungry days", visiting Northern Ireland for three and four days at a time, almost totally without publicity, talking to party activists on the ground, pledging his support wherever he could.

But Hume knows that the SDLP will never be a mascot to the bulk of Fine Gael in the same way that tradition decrees it must to Fianna Fail, and he knows that the loss of the Fitt/Devlin element of the party make Labour less comfortable with him. Frank Cluskey's passionate emphasis on reconciliation within Northern Ireland makes him suspicious of the SDLP's move towards a Dublin London axis, and Cluskey would almost be certain to distrust any process initiated by Charles Haughey. Indeed, by the time Garret FitzGerald put Hume's Forum idea to the cabinet, there were only three members in favour: FitzGerald himself, Peter Barry and Michael Noonan.

The coolness in the coalition ranks has developed in Hume a certain loyalty to Haughey, despite the disagreement between them on the proposed Forum report, and despite the development of the Haughey-Mallon relationship which has more than once seriously challenged Hume's authority within-the SDLP.

Charlie still worships at the shrine of nationalism. He's a believer, he bends the knee. In Charlie's world the Northern nationalists will always have a value, even if it is mainly a symbolic one. John Hume doesn't forget that.

For John Hume, the last fifteen years has been a struggle for survival, a struggle to focus attention on the nationalist case, by whatever political means. Starting in the-late sixties with civil rights for Catholics, by February 1972 he was saying that "the settlement to problems is a United Ireland or nothing". In June 1972 he was talking to the Provisional IRA - about a truce which ended four weeks later. He says it was the last time he treated with the Provisionals.

With the Sunningdale deal, the SDLP emphasis moved to getting a share of power for Catholics internally in Northern Ireland. With the failure of a series of internal British initiatives, that emphasis has shifted back to the need for a settlement in the Irish context. Always conscious of the need to keep the door open to active politics, Hume has resisted too headlong a rush to the irredentist nationalist position. But political pressures in the North, some mutiny within his own party and the coming to power of Charles J. Haughey in the Republic have all compounded an SDLP drift to a traditional nationalist position. Hume had hoped the Forum would stop the drift into that cul de sac. He had hoped the Forum could offer the British an acceptable political way forward and so break the log-jam in the North. Maybe he still does.

ONCE UPON A TIME, AND NOT SO MANY YEARS AGO, THE SDLP would have been reluctant to seek such official political succour in the Republic. In the days when the party still saw some hope of an internal power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland, they were very sensitive to unionist sneers that they were "running down to Dublin again". But time and time again, the British failed the SDLP in its attempts to ensure Catholic representation in the government of Northern Ireland. IRA violence turned the British off Ireland. British faint-heartedness towards the unionists, British insensitivity about the extent of Catholic alienation in the North, and finally the SDLP's own internal problems forced it down the unapproved road to the Republic.

After the bitter collapse of the power-sharing executive in 1974, and the long-drawn out disappointment of the constitutional convention in 1975/76 the party's twin policy of power-sharing and an Irish dimension began to list heavily towards the old nationalist line - that Catholic involvement in, and acceptance of, the Northern state needed official supervision from the Republic.

The party was no longer so careful to distance itself from the old Nationalist party's ideals. Newer lights, like Seamus Mallon, made it clear that they were ready to "go to the grave with Eddie McAteer".

And then, there were the Provos. Faced with the emotionalism of the H Blocks campaign, and the party's own organisational problems in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, the SDLP stood back in 1981 to let first Bobby Sands and then Owen Carron take what was in fact a Provisional Sinn Fein seat. Militant Republicanism was on the SDLP's tail. By the time James Prior's Assembly elections came along, Hume was outflanked within the party and forced into an abstentionist position on the assembly.

Those two decisions, the decision not to contest Fermanagh-South Tyrone the second time, and the abstentionist position adopted on the Assembly, made the SDLP look more than ever like a ghost of the old Nationalist Party. To coalition parties in the Republic they also raised a major question-mark over John Hume's commitment to the principle of constitutional politics. But Hume had his problems.

The SDLP political base in Fermanagh-South Tyrone has never been properly developed. The personal troubles of SDLP Council chairman, Tom Daly, brother of Bishop Ned Daly of Derry, left them without an obvious candidate for the 1979 election.

Austin Currie decided to break with party wishes and stood as an Independent in 1979 but was beaten by Independent Nationalist Frank Maguire who took his seat for me second term. When Maguire died, his brother Noel put his nomination papers but papers were also lodged for hunger-striker Bobby Sands. Fearing that Maguire would be pressured by the Provisionals to withdraw, Currie wanted to lodge his own nomination papers. Hume advised against it. In the event Maguire was persuaded by what Danny Morrison was later to call "moral blackmail" to withdraw and the field was left open to the Provisionals.

It could have been said that the party was duped on that occasion. Some months later, however, when Sands died there was a second chance for the SDLP to offer the constitutional nationalist option to Owen Carron. The local party wanted Hume himself to run.

The party constituency council decided not to contest the election by 48 votes to 44. John Hume said at the time that he backed the decision not to contest in the hope that Owen Carron would lose, and that would stop the Prom bandwagon. It didn't.

The decision was made because of the emotion generated by the H Blocks campaign at the time, even in SDLP circles, and was taken with a view to the possible backlash the party in Fermanagh might face in the forthcoming local elections. But it was a betrayal of the SDLP's promise to offer the constitutional option to nationalists, and it shocked many of their supporters in the Republic, particularly within Fine Gael and Labour, and put a further nail in their coffin as far as British public opinion was concerned.

The Assembly elections presented another challenge to Hume. Garret FitzGerald had given a lukewarm welcome to the proposals, Charles Haughey had damned them. Hume, feeling that the provision for a seventy per cent vote to pass any measure still didn't give the SDLP a proper veto, decided still that the SDLP should fight the election and take their seats to put at least one power-sharing motion down. He went on holiday in the summer of 1982 having communicated this to the party. While he was away the hard-liners in the party lobbied for an abstentionist line and when Hume came back to a stormy party meeting in Dungannon in September, the mood had changed. Indeed party despair with the inadequacy of the British response had reached such a pitch that prominent nationalist member like Paddy Duffy, who had created such a powerful base for the SDLP in the Mid Ulster area, decided to opt our 0: active representative politics at that meeting. The decided to run on an abstentionist ticket and Hume accept it. The SDLP wasn't going to give that British initiative a sideways look.

On an abstentionist ticket for the first time the SDLP fought an uneasy campaign to find that Provisional Sinn Fein, bringing out a new vote, had established a considerable political base from which to challenge them for the leadership of the nationalist community.

They were in trouble in Belfast, with the Provos getting out the Republican vote, and the Alliance party squeezing them from the other side, taking an amount of the better-heeled Catholic vote. They were challenged in Mid Ulster.

Even before Sinn Fein won the West Belfast Westminster seat the SDLP knew it needed to be seen to be about its constitutional. nationalist business, needed a respectable platform and a shot of self-confidence, and where better to get that than in the home of nationalist tea and sympathy itself - Dublin.

UNTIL CHARLES HAUGHEY TOOK OVER FlANNA FAIL, CHANGES OF political leadership or government in the Republic had posed few problems for Hume and the SDLP. He was like a political son to Jack Lynch, and Lynch, Aiken and de Valera had wanted him to contest a seat for Fianna Fail in the Republic. The cordial relationship continued with Liam Cosgrave though Hume was careful to retain his relationship with Fianna Fail. He refused, for instance, Liam Cosgrave's request at Sunningdale to contact Jack Lynch and win Lynch's prior support for the Sunningdale deal - that as he saw it was Cosgrave's job. But he also persuaded George Colley not to attack the deal, as Colley wanted to.

The Republic's policy on the North up to 1979 was always sensitive to keep in line with the wishes of the SDLP.

Haughey's accession, and the now clear Fianna Fail demand for a British withdrawal, however, strained the triangular relationship between the SDLP and the two main Southern parties. Hume knew that he had to come to terms with Haughey rather than Haughey coming to terms with him. Haughey after all, saw the mantle of Republicanism as belonging properly to the Taoiseach in Dublin, rather than John Hume in Northern Ireland.

But if their electoral collywobbles in Northern Ireland had alienated the SDLP from Fine Gael, the real strain with Garret FitzGerald came at the end of March 1982 when Haughey and FitzGerald had disagreed sharply over the worth of the Prior Assembly - FitzGerald still saw some hope for it. But then Hume met with the newly elected Haughey, and after their meeting a communique was issued damning the assembly and any future internal arrangements as "unworkable", and asking for any future progress to be pursued through the Anglo-Irish Council. The statement was issued, unusually, in both Haughey's and Hume's names. Fine Gael regarded it as an SDLP abandonment of power-sharing and an SDLP snub to Garret FitzGerald.

FitzGerald was angry for some weeks, but eventually mended the relationship with Hume. But other members of Fine Gael didn't forget so easily. Neither did the Labour Party.

The residue of this ill-will could have swamped Hume's Forum, had not Garret FitzGerald railroaded the cabinet into agreement. After Hume's official talks in Dublin in spring 1983 to persuade the three party leaders of the need for the Forum, Dick Spring admitted to political correspondents that he had major reservations about involving himself in what had to be a purely nationalist exercise.

When FitzGerald informed' the cabinet of his decision to support the Forum only an hour before he issued his statement, only three members of the cabinet were in favour of the idea.

All those tensions still remain with the Forum and would seem to be impossible to reconcile. Hume has involved himself at last in the cauldron of politics in the Republic and it will need a miracle for him and the SDLP to emerge unscathed. With Charlie Haughey and Ray McSharry refusing to give in on the unitary state, and Frank Cluskey and Maurice Manning refusing to co-operate in a reiteration of the old green line, the parties in the Republic simply resume their original stances on Northern Ireland. They don't suffer with their own supporters. But what of the SDLP? How will John Hume and Seamus Mallon emerge from this debate, or from a split report?

The Hume-Mallon relationship is a difficult one, not helped by the assiduous wooing of Mallon by the Fianna Fail leader. Hume saw little of Haughey before he became leader of Fianna Fail. Indeed, on a visit to Derry in the mid 1970s when Haughey asked Hume to show him around, Hume decided to make it clear that he didn't approve of Haughey's suspected sympathy for the Provisionals. He brought him around bomb site after bomb site, ramming home the message of what the Provisionals had done to Northern Ireland. When Haughey appointed Mallon to the Senate, and rang Hume to clear it, Hume was angry but couldn't be seen to veto the appointment. His view has always been that the SDLP shouldn't take seats in the Republic. In turn the Mallon camp have felt that Hume didn't rally round for Mallon's court case - his disqualification from the Northern Ireland Assembly because of holding a Senate seat. Neither has Hume had much to say about the Mallon bugging affair.

At the SDLP conference this year, Mallon threw down a direct challenge to Hume's support for the "all options" Forum report ... it was like letting the British choose as they wished, he said, the presentation of a Dolly Mixture. The difference reached a crisis point in an SDLP Forum meeting on Thursday, February 16, with Mallon threatening to resign. The next day, however, Hume carried the SDLP meeting in a vote for an all options report. Mallon was out of the room taking a telephone call.

While Hume is undoubtedly in charge at SDLP officer and elected representative level, Mallon is now the most significant hard-line nationalist within the party and has a deal of grass root support. His loss would be a substantial blow to the party. His fear, and that of assembly members like Pascal O'Hare, Frank Feely, and Paddy O'Donoghue, would be of the British taking up a joint authority option from the Forum, and limiting it to security co-operation. That would reduce the North to the mere security context in which the British see it, and might involve the SDLP in what is a mere law and order arrangement.

Hume's fear is of a Fianna Fail minority report or a unitary state report - one which the British can ignore. He has used his formidable lobbying skills to keep the Forum on the road, grabbing the ear of Gerry Collins on a Strasbourg visit one day, pushing Bishop Ned Daly to get the Bishops into the Forum on another.

An ex-Maynooth man, and Cardinal O Fiaich's first MA student in Maynooth, Hume didn't like the Government's attack on the Cardinal over Sinn Fein - mostly because it might damage the Forum. He doesn't see prior constitutional change in the South as central to the emergence of a New Ireland, but he knew that the Bishops presence would focus Southern attention and perhaps British attention on the Forum.

If the Forum fails, he knows the SDLP is on its own. His own immediate position electorally is safe enough, he'll win his European seat without much bother, but will the Provos push their vote over the 100,000 figure in June?

The SDLP is also beginning to look like a one man party - Hume is their leader, their man in Europe, their man in Westminster. With Paddy Duffy the party might have taken a seat in Mid Ulster but in the event it went to the DUP's William McCrea. In Belfast, the party is still struggling to recover from the lack of organisation left by Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin. Brian Feeney's branch in North Belfast 5 probably the liveliest. West Belfast would seem to be firmly in the hands of the Provisionals. Their clientelism, however cynical, is working on the ground.

John Hume himself admits that he was so ashamed by the housing conditions in West Belfast during his Euro election campaign in 1979 that he stopped the canvass with Gerry Fitt. He couldn't ask those people for a vote when they were living in such housing conditions in an SDLP man's constituency, he said. His Euro-election boast is that he has managed to secure a special £63 million housing for Belfast from the special budget line he's persuaded the EEC to set up for Northern Ireland. And indeed, his own town of Derry is a monument to the housing work he has been doing since the mid sixties; the city centre has been practically rebuilt and there's what amounts to a new town of houses in Camhill and Shantallow, as well as a new bridge across the Foyle. He has a Westminster secretary, Mark Durkan, and a European secretary, Denis Haughey, operating from Derry and his wife, Pat, now runs the office so efficiently that constituents ask for her, not him, when they come in.

But in Belfast, the party feels that Hume is Derry or even Dublin oriented, that he doesn't understand or know the city, and that when he's away from Northern Ireland, which he is so often, there is nobody in the North's capital city to represent the party adequately.

The amount of publicity given to Hume can sometimes irritate his colleagues. He rarely misses a photo opportunity - he was in all the press pictures of the Bishops visit to the Forum although he had to leave a half an hour after it started; he was in at the opening and closing press conferences of the Northern leaders job-finding visit to the States, though it was Austin Currie who represented the SDLP after the first two days. He can seem to do ten television interviews in an evening when a story is running. He is good with the press, careful to keep up contacts with editors, editorial writers and powerful journalists, but rarely utters an unguarded word. He quoted an old Bogside friend ruefully as he looked at a series of Monday morning headlines which forecast failure for the Forum: "There's no such thing as bad publicity, Mr Hume."

One wonders. The Forum has been built up to be the way forward for the SDLP. At this year's conference in Belfast, the delegates spoke of it as of a second corning. The euphoria was contagious, the press milled around. Half the Dublin civil service and parliament were there to pay respects. At the end of the dinner that evening, the delegates rose to their feet on a wave of emotion as John Hume threw off his jacket and sang: "We shall overcome."

Will they sing it this time next year? •