(Vatican Radio) More than any other individual John Hume can take credit for being the key architect of the Northern Ireland peace process. His dialogue with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the militant Irish Republican Army (IRA) eventually led that organisation to declare a ceasefire which culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to the region. Michael Kelly reports from Dublin Listen:
The awarding of a knighthood by Pope Benedict XVI is a fitting tribute to a man who has spent his entire adult life in the pursuit of peace both in Ireland and in other troubled parts of the world. He has been warmly commended as a man who lived Gospel values in the political sphere.
Born in a Catholic area of Derry in 1937, Mr Hume studied for the priesthood for a number of years before returning to his native city as a teacher. His experience of the hardship and injustice that the minority Catholic community experienced coupled with his grounding in Catholic social teaching led to his involvement in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.
He is also a founder of the Credit Union movement which ensured that people from modest backgrounds had access to credit at a time when banks stubbornly refused to lend.
During his political career he campaigned tirelessly for an end to discrimination against Catholics in the provision of housing and in employment. However, he consistently rejected violence and urged Catholics to struggle for their civil rights by purely peaceful means. He established the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the SDLP, in 1970 to pursue his campaign for insisting that violence was both counter-productive and wrong. He argued that if Northern Ireland were to leave union with Britain and become part of the Republic of Ireland, a long-cherished hope of most Catholics in the region, it would have to be by exclusively peaceful and democratic means.
He would later say that his Catholic faith was central to how he approached all political tasks.
It was Belfast-based priest Fr Alec Reid who convinced Mr Hume to begin his dialogue with the political representatives of the IRA, a move which saw him heavily criticised including from elements within his own party. The dialogue led to a 1994 ceasefire by the IRA which was quickly followed by a similar ceasefire by Loyalist paramilitaries who were fighting an insurgency to keep Northern Ireland a part of Britain.
The 1998 peace agreement – signed on Good Friday – was hailed as a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Political commentators noted that the document eventually agreed upon contained many of the key principles that Mr Hume had been articulating for decades.
He was jointly awarded the Noble prize for peace in 1998 in recognition for his work. The other recipient was David Trimble, the then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.
Mr Hume was on a pilgrimage to the French Mariah Shrine of Lourdes when he was told about the honour from Pope Benedict. Friends say he is delighted.
In welcoming the awarding of the Papal Knighthood, Msgr Eamon Martin, administrator of Mr Hume’s home Diocese of Derry, said it will be conferred “in recognition of his outstanding services to Catholic social teaching in the area of peace”.
Msgr Martin said that “Mr Hume has worked tirelessly for peace and justice, at considerable personal cost and risk.
“In doing this, he has testified to the fundamental dignity of human beings and the universal, inviolable and inalienable rights presented by Blessed John XXIII in Pacem in Terris,” Msgr Martin said referring to Pope John’s seminal 1963 encyclical on justice and peace.
Mr Hume’s successor as leader of the SDLP Mark Durkan said the honour from the Pope was “especially appropriate because in all his politics John Hume reflected Gospel values of non-violence, peace, respect for difference, equality, justice and care for the dignity and wellbeing of others.
“His moral compass and vocational pursuit of a democratic accommodation with shared institutions, served in navigating us all through the worst of violence and division to the Agreement and the opportunities we now have,” Mr Durkan said.
Mr Hume is widely-respected across the political divides in Ireland and in 2010 was voted Ireland’s greatest person ever in a public poll.