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60 Years Since John Hume's "The Northern Catholic" is published

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Authored by Tommy Dolan
Published on 18th May, 2024 8 min read

60 Years Since John Hume's "The Northern Catholic" is Published

On this day (18/05/2024) 60 years ago, John Hume had the first part of his influential article, “The Northern Catholic”, published by The Irish Times.[i]

Who was John Hume? He is widely regarded as one of the most acute and consequential political intelligences that Ireland ever produced. As a senior British civil servant observed whilst reporting upon the “State of the SDLP [Social Democratic and Labour Party]” in early 1976, if “[Gerry] Fitt is the head of the party, Hume is certainly the brain”.[ii] A “withdrawn, serious, studious man who identifies closely with his home town Londonderry”, this official, N. R. Cowling, continued, “[Hume]…is lucid and logical”.[iii] More recently, the former U.S. senator, George Mitchell (Bill Clinton’s Special Envoy to Northern Ireland), insisted that Hume was the “primary architect” of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement of 1998: “the person who conceived the manner in which all the disparate parties and issues could be brought together”.[iv] In the wake of the agreement, which ultimately restored devolution in Northern Ireland, Hume and David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party at the time, were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. 

During the early to mid-1960s Hume emerged as an educated, articulate, and instrumental citizen of Derry/Londonderry. In 1958 he gained a B.A. in French and Modern History from St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, the National Roman Catholic Seminary of Ireland. Deciding not to pursue his training for the priesthood, he returned to his native Derry/Londonderry and took up a teaching post. When “The Northern Catholic” was published, Hume was simultaneously preparing his MA thesis in Modern History, “Social and Economic Aspects of the Growth of Derry, 1825–1850”, which he submitted at St. Patrick’s College in September 1964.[v] Incidentally, his research was supervised by Reverend Tómas Ó Fiaich, who had taught him history when he was an undergraduate in Maynooth, and who was later appointed Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland—during the republican hunger strikes that occurred during the early 1980s, Ó Fiaich was a vocal opponent of British policy in Northern Ireland.  Indeed, Hume’s postgraduate research nourished a documentary: A City Solitary.[vi] Produced with a fellow teacher, Terence McDonald, and narrated by a Church of Ireland minister, Reverend Brian Hannon, the film surveyed the history of Hume’s city, probing the origins of the “sectarian divisions of modern Derry”.

Turning to “The Northern Catholic”, in the article Hume advanced a conspicuously anti-utopian thesis: the Catholic nationalist community in Northern Ireland needed to stop fixating upon the prospect of a united Ireland. Instead, they had to come to terms with the partition of Ireland that had occurred in 1920. According to Hume, by doing so, the Catholic nationalist community could therefore divert its energies into making a “constructive contribution on. . .the social and economic plane”.[vii] Acceptance of “the Constitutional position”, i.e. of the Northern Ireland state, would, Hume reasoned, enable civic consciousness to prosper.[viii] It would thus enable “normal politics”—that is, politics exhibiting an orthodox, left-right division—to develop in Northern Ireland.[ix]

Rather than pursuing “a policy of non-recognition” of Northern Ireland and believing that everything would somehow be better in a united Ireland, Hume insisted that Catholic nationalists were obliged to improve their quality of life, however slowly, within the context of partition, even if that constitutional context was flawed.[x] Yes, Northern Ireland’s Unionist government had an “obligation”, as Hume put it, to end “unjust” discrimination against Catholic nationalists in key aspects of public life, such as employment and housing.[xi] Yet the “policy of the Nationalist Political Party”, the main political vehicle of the Catholic nationalist community in Northern Ireland at the time had, as Hume highlighted, descended into merely complaining.[xii] He argued, quite provocatively, that even if alleged discrimination in public life was ended, this would not be the “panacea” to his community’s ‘ills’, namely lack of jobs, housing, and consequently high levels of emigration.[xiii] Having won their “rights”, northern Catholics would still have to fulfil their civic “duties”.[xiv]

For Hume, the only way for his community to achieve their “rights” and so set in motion the constitutional change—towards a united Ireland—that they desired was, paradoxically, to “accept the Constitutional position” and to labour to fulfil their civic “duties”.[xv] By embracing Northern Ireland, by endeavouring to make it a better place, by, to all intents and purposes, living as loyal citizens, Catholics would, Hume theorised, earn the trust of their Protestant Unionist neighbours. That community’s deep-seated fear of Roman Catholicism and of an all-Ireland republic would, in turn, be alleviated, albeit gradually. Through “evolution” a “truly United Ireland” would, according to Hume, emerge.[xvi] The defining characteristic of this envisaged state was that it had been brought into existence “by the will of the Northern majority”—via the consent of each community. “It is this lack of a positive contribution and the lack of apparent interest in the general welfare of Northern Ireland”, as Hume proclaimed in the article,

that has led many Protestants to believe that the Northern Catholic is politically irresponsible and therefore unfit to rule. . .the Constitutional position. . .has too often been an excuse for inactivity. . .If the whole Northern community get seriously to work on its problems, the Unionist bogeys about Catholics and a republic will, through better understanding, disappear. It will, of course, take a long time.[xvii]

Hume’s “The Northern Catholic” certainly proved influential. It is important to bear in mind, however, that he was not the only exponent of the strand of “new” or “revisionist” nationalism (as historians have dubbed it) that emerged in Ireland during the late 1950s.[xviii] For example, groupings such as the Campaign for Social Justice, founded in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, in January 1964 by Patricia and Conn McCluskey, likewise sought the improvement of social, economic, and political conditions within Northern Ireland, as opposed to calling for the abolition of partition.

*The card image for this article is of the bust of Hume in Leinster House, Dublin. Two similar busts have been installed elsewhere in recognition of his political career—one in the European Parliament in Brussels, another in Washington D.C.

[i] See John Hume, “The Northern Catholic,” Irish Times, 18 & 19 May 1964 (hereafter Hume, “TNC”). On Hume see my “John Hume and his Ideas” in The Routledge Handbook of the Northern Ireland Conflict and Peace, ed. Laura McAtackney and Máìrtín Ó Catháin (Oxon: Routledge, 2024).

[ii] Kew, The National Archives (TNA), CJ4/2359, N. R. Cowling, “State of the SDLP, ” January 1976, 5. Fitt led the SDLP between 1970, when the party was founded, and 1979, when Hume became leader.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv][iv] See Mitchell’s foreword to Maurice Fitzpatrick, John Hume in America: from Derry to D.C. (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2017), ix–xi. Hume and David Trimble (former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party) received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1998 following the negotiation of the Belfast Agreement.

[v] John Hume, "Social and economic aspects of the growth of Derry, 1825–1850" (MA thesis, National University of Ireland, 1964). This was published as Derry Beyond the Walls: Social and Economic Aspects of the Growth of Derry, 1825–1850 (Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2002).

[vi] Derry/Londonderry, The Nerve Centre, John Hume and Terence McDonald, A City Solitary (1963).

[vii] Hume, “TNC”.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] On these terms see P. J. McLoughlin, John Hume and the Revision of Irish Nationalism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011); Sarah Campbell, “New Nationalism? The S.D.L.P. and the Creation of a Socialist and Labour Party in Northern Ireland, 1969–75,” Irish Historical Studies 38 (2013): 422–438. Also see my “Maynooth, History, and the Intellectual Origins of John Hume’s Political Thinking,” Historical Journal 62, no. 4 (2019): 1045–1068.

Authored by Tommy Dolan

Tommy Dolan

Tommy Dolan is Senior Editor at British Online Archives. He gained his PhD in History from the University of Edinburgh in 2016. Between 2019 and 2022 he was a post-doctoral fellow on the Leverhulme-funded project 'Rethinking Civil Society: History, Theory, Critique' at the University of York. He then joined the metadata team at the University of York library. Tommy has published in the Historical Journal, the Journal of the History of European Ideas, and Studia Hibernica. His research focuses on the way in which readings of history have influenced political thought in Ireland, particularly with respect to the architects of the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Tommy is currently also co-editor of Writing the Troubles.

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