AN UNSUNG HERO
Born Pat Hone in Derry, she was one of six children. Her father, Patrick, was a building contractor. Her mother, Mary, was a homemaker who came from Donegal, where the family spent many happy holidays.
The family lived in the largely Protestant area of the city, on the east bank of the River Foyle, despite the fact they were Catholic. Their house was on the main Derry to Belfast road.
Pat went to convent school in Derry before training to be a teacher in Belfast. Her first job was as a primary school teacher back in her home city of Derry. She was a tiny woman and joked she was hardly bigger than her pupils.
Most of her pupils came from extremely poor backgrounds. Derry was a very poor city in the 1950s and early 1960s. She was a passionate, dedicated teacher, always encouraging her students to realise a good education was the key to lifting themselves out of poverty.
She met John Hume at a dance hall in Muff in County Donegal in 1958, where she used to go with her friends on Friday nights to listen to showbands. She said it was love at first sight. She married him in 1960.They were to have 5 children.
John was also a teacher.
The Humes were appalled not only by the poverty around them but the gerrymandering, which they saw as fixing elections. They joined the Irish Civil Rights movement in the mid-1960s (based on the US model).
The subsequent violent suppression of the Civil Rights protest movement, led to the re-emergence of Catholic paramilitaries and provided the spark to the Troubles which began in August 1969.
John left teaching to start a political career and for a number of years Pat was the family breadwinner.
John became MP for Foyle in the Northern Ireland Parliament, based at Stormont. He would go on to become an MP at Westminster and a member of the European Parliament.
The family lived right in the heart of the Republican community, close to the Bogside.
Violence escalated and the British government sent in the army to try to keep the peace.
As the IRA fought back and became a significant force in Northern Ireland, the SDLP (Social Democratic Labour Party) were formed to provide a non-violent Catholic response. The initial leader was Gerry Fitt – but both Humes became committed party members.
John played a pivotal role in trying to restore peace to Northern Ireland and became a significant politician. But Pat was equally as important. She chose to play a quieter role, providing a safe haven for him at home, always giving him support.
She gave up her teaching career in 1979 to run his Derry constituency office. As he became more involved with high profile political issues, Pat dealt with poverty, housing issues, health issues and anything involving the local community.
They found that as arrests and violence got worse, worried parents would phone or visit their home asking for help in locating their missing offspring.
And the Hume house was firebombed on several occasions (causing them to have to leave on one occasion). Abusive letters and phone calls were regularly received, and bullets came through the post. There was constant intimidation.
John was encouraged by the police to carry a gun for self-protection but refused, saying he was a man who believed in peace.
Their son, John Jnr. said, “We lived through some strange times, but she made everything seem normal…She stayed calm and reassured us. We never saw the threats as children. She was unflappable.”
Their house in Derry and holiday home in County Donegal were always open to visitors who were willing to talk, debate and negotiate – even those from the Protestant community or from the other side of the political divide – and journalists both supportive and hostile. All were treated as friends and got a warm welcome.
But Pat still played an important role behind the scenes within the SDLP. She was known as their ‘ultimate diplomat’, being able to mediate in any dispute or argument (including many involving her husband). “She smoothed things over and got people talking to each other again.”
When the Northern Ireland peace process began in the 1990s, she was adept at establishing friendly relations with those perceived as ‘the other side’. She became particularly friendly with Daphne Trimble, wife of David who was leader of the Ulster Unionists.
As John Hume and David Trimble were put under intense pressure not to sign the Northern Ireland Agreement from the more extreme elements of their respective communities, it was their wives that gave them the encouragement and impetus to go ahead.
Some people have said that Pat (and Daphne) were the true, unrecognised heroes of the peace process.
Pat was thrilled when her husband was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize but refused to acknowledge her contribution to this award.
When John stepped down from his seat in the European parliament in 2004, the SDLP saw Pat as his replacement, in an effort to stop the political rise of Sinn Fein amongst the Catholic community.
However, despite great pressure from the SDLP hierarchy, she decided not to stand in the election. She had realised that John was beginning to decline in health and she said looking after him was now her priority.
She was awarded the Irish Red Cross Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.
She was also delighted to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Ulster.
She said she was more proud that her former pupil Anne Donnelly had become an SDLP councillor in Derry.
John developed Alzheimer’s and Pat became his permanent carer for many years. He died at the start of 2021.
As a tribute to him, Pat started the Hume Trust in November 2021 – dedicated to peace and reconciliation.
She went into hospital for a few days. There she commented on the fantastic job the NHS were doing under Covid restrictions. She died suddenly and unexpectedly.
When Pat died, former President of the USA, Bill Clinton, paid her a fulsome tribute, recognising the crucial role she had played in the peace process in Northern Ireland. Hillary Clinton said she was, “a gracious, determined force behind the achievement of peace in Ireland.”
Tributes came in from all sides of the political and religious divide. The leader of the DUP, Jeffrey Donaldson said it was “a unique life well lived.”
Baroness Trimble said, “We just gelled”. She added, “We both lived with the threat of violence hanging over our heads and bringing up children in that…I have lost a true friend.”
Pat’s funeral was held at St. Eugene’s cathedral in Derry.
Perhaps the most telling comment came from Colum Eastwood, the current leader of the SDLP. “Without Pat Hume there would have been no peace process in Ireland – that’s the simple truth.”
At her funeral, her son John said, “She was a quiet person and never thrust herself into the limelight. She devoted herself to Dad and was more than happy with her life. I know she died a very happy woman.”
RIP – Rescuing Irish Peaceprocess.