‘You Can’t Eat a Flag’ – What John Hume did before Politics

John Hume’s earliest political memory was going to an election meeting with his father Sam in Derry. He became swept up amid the waving Irish tricolours and stirring speeches of an Ireland free from British rule, of partition ended and striking a blow for freedom just as World War Two ended. His father gently put his hand on John’s shoulder, ‘Son, don’t get involved in that stuff. Because you can’t eat a flag.’

Sam Hume, Johns father, was born in Derry in 1890; 18 years after Germany was created and 11 years before the Edwardian era began.

He was born into poverty and had to grow up fast. He moved to Glasgow at the age of 12 to live with his sister and work in shipyards. On the outbreak of World War One he joined the Royal Irish Rifles and saw action in the trenches. Thereafter he served in the Irish Free State Army then during World War Two worked for the British Ministry of Food.

From September 1945 he never worked again. So he spent his time helping local illiterate people write letters to employers or fill out forms from the family kitchen. Young John heard these stories of poverty, housing, employment and credit. You can imagine what ideas the teenage John was formulating about what role he could play in society with options that his father did not have.

John was born in 1937. A court appearance in 1949 paints a picture of the young man. He was arrested for playing ‘headies’ on the street then charged for playing football. He defended himself in court and his premise was that he was technically playing headies, not football, so shouldn’t be charged. He was fined two shillings but praised by the judge.

John went to Maynooth, a seminary college in the just north of Dublin where he studied History and French. The thesis of his MA was, rather unsurprisingly, on the socioeconomic development of Derry. Thereafter he returned to his secondary school St Columb’s College to teach.

Yet throughout this stage of his life he had his fingers in different pies. He certainly gives the impression of a gifted man with an inability to swim with the tide.

After seeing salmon from the river Foyle being exported to be smoked in England, he started his own rival business. He stepped away from this when he was elected to Northern Ireland’s parliament in 1969.

Yet perhaps his greatest legacy, before entering the treacherous world of politics, was the creation of Ireland’s first credit union in 1960. He had identified a pattern whereby the Catholics in Derry were caught in a miserable financial cycle – too poor to buy a home but without a house to use as collateral to secure a bank loan to help them on their way. The economist David McWilliams argues here that a lack of access to credit was just as detrimental for Northern Irish Catholics as gerrymandering and housing discrimination. With a total of £8 and 10 shillings the credit union, essentially a working class community bank, was created. It inspired others around the island, and John even went to the protestant heartland of east Belfast to pitch the idea there too.

Interestingly the Undertones drummer Billy Doherty purchased his drum kit from Hume’s credit union. Ergo; no John Hume, no Teenage Kicks!

As the decade progressed, protest movements around the world developed. It was only a matter of time before the blatantly sectarian government of Northern Ireland were under pressure.

Catholics in Northern Ireland were second class citizens. The state had been created as a clumsy compromise after the Irish War of Independence. Irish nationalists wanted a United Ireland. The protestant Unionists wanted Ulster. So the 26 counties with a catholic majority formed the Irish Free State and the 6 counties with a protestant majority formed Northern Ireland. Both states put their religion to the forefront.

Yet in Northern Ireland the state mechanisms were used to deny Catholics opportunities through gerrymandering (Derry, for example, was a majority catholic city, yet had a balance of 8 catholic councillors versus 12 protestant ones), education, housing and a culture of paranoia. By the late 1960s a growing Catholic middle class with third level education began a civil rights protest movement among the lines of those in America. And like in America the police reacted brutally. March after march and protest after protest were attacked. Unsurprisingly, Hume was involved in this broad church and so organised documentaries showing the brutality of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

As civil unrest in Northern Ireland seemed probable, so did a career in politics for John Hume. On 5th October 1968 both became inevitable. In Derry the police were filmed attacking a crowd with batons and water cannons. Westminster ignored the crisis and Stormont acted too late. The Troubles had begun. This is not the article to cover this dark period of history. But just as John Hume was present at the beginning, he was present at the end as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998.

Recommended reading:





‘John Hume’ by Paul Routledge (1998)

Recommended listening:


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