“John Hume protected us from the worst of Brexit”: Claire Hanna remembers the late SDLP leader

Claire Hanna, the SDLP MP for South Belfast and a family friend of John Hume, discusses the Nobel laureate’s legacy and argues that he created the “toolkit” that prevented a hard Brexit.

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The late John Hume created the “toolkit” that prevented a hard Brexit, the SDLP MP Claire Hanna has argued, paying tribute to the former party leader and Nobel laureate whose death was announced on 3 August. 

Speaking to the New Statesman podcast for a special episode to celebrate the life and legacy of Hume, the South Belfast MP remembers a family friend and a “visionary” political leader who was a key architect of the peace process in Northern Ireland. 

“Throughout his life, he led people away from the base responses that had always characterised politics here,” Hanna recalls. “People had always gone to the trenches and viewed absolutely everything through the prism of green and orange. In the 70s and 80s, when there was unimaginable horror all around him, and nearly every political leader was playing to those base instincts and allowing the evil to just roll on year after year. Everybody else was thinking in militaristic terms.

“He was empathetic before it became the 'in' thing. He cried with victims and he always located what he was seeing in how victims were experiencing it and did everything he could do, as he always said, to just save one life. In the end, he saved many, many thousands.”

On the podcast, Hanna discusses Hume’s life and legacy, from the early years of the civil rights movement and his decades of arguing for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Northern Ireland, to his engagement in secret negotiations with Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, which paved the way for the Good Friday peace agreement that brought decades of conflict to an end.  

In providing the basis of a power-sharing devolved government, Hume also, Hanna argues, provided Northern Irish politicians with the apparatus to prevent “the worst of Brexit”.

“He essentially protected us from the worst of Brexit by creating the Good Friday Agreement and a kind of 'toolkit' to get us out of a hard Brexit. If he hadn’t come up with that, not only would we not have had the opportunities of devolution, we wouldn’t have been able to prevent a hard Brexit, I don’t believe, either.”  

“He really is the model for political leadership,” the South Belfast MP adds, discussing the vast impact Hume’s ideas and example have had on her own approach to politics, from the space and respect he accorded his political opponents and his emphasis on finding the 'common ground', to his fundamental focus on the 'practical and economic' questions underpinning peace. 

“He said many times that you can’t eat a flag and that the best peace process is a job. Nationalism and unionism won’t put bread on anybody’s table and on their own they do nothing to affect the practical issues that affect people’s lives. That’s true right up to the present day.” 

He provided “a blueprint for leading beyond your authority,” she says, as a “practical person” who used all the levers available to him. “He didn’t really have much status beyond being a constituency MP. But through the force of his personality and visionary leadership, he just solved problems. Wherever you’re coming from, I can’t think of anyone better to model your politics on.”

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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