Pat Hume, who has died aged 83, was the highly regarded rock and anchor in the life of her Nobel peace laureate husband John. From the very early years of the Northern Ireland Troubles in the late 1960s to the peace process and the Good Friday agreement three decades later, Pat provided sanctuary, support and often vital advice to John as he worked determinedly for a peaceful compromise to the conflict.
So respected was Pat that in 2004, when John stepped down from his seat in the European parliament, many of his colleagues inside the Social Democratic and Labour Party saw Pat as their salvation in the face of a post-ceasefire Sinn Féin surge.
Some senior members of the SDLP tried to persuade her to run for the party in the European parliament election. They believed that in view of her enormous popularity, which straddled the political-religious divide in Northern Ireland, she could save the seat for the party. But she declined the offer, preferring instead to look after her ailing husband, who by then was already suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Throughout more than four politically turbulent decades, Pat’s number one priority remained standing by and caring for the man she had met at a dance hall in Muff, over the border in Co Donegal, in 1958. They married two years later.
Pat Hume (nee Hone), one of six children, grew up on what was then the mainly Protestant east bank of the river Foyle in Derry. The family lived in Cross Street, close to the main road out of Derry to Belfast, and her father was a building contractor. Educated at Thornhill college in the city, she later studied to become a teacher at St Mary’s Training College in Belfast. She returned to Derry as a primary school teacher.
One of her former pupils, Anne Donnelly, who in later life would become an SDLP councillor in Derry, recalls a woman who was passionate about the power of education lifting up children from impoverished backgrounds.
“I don’t think it is any exaggeration to say 95% of the children in Pat’s class lived in poverty. Derry in the late 50s and early 60s was a very poor town with mass unemployment,” Donnelly recalled. “In class, however, Pat told us we could be anything we wanted to be. She also encouraged children to work hard, study and get on. Pat truly believed in the potential of every child.”
The combination of that poverty with unionist gerrymandering and discrimination against Catholics fuelled the civil rights movement that her husband John joined in the mid-60s. The unionist government overreaction and violent suppression of the peaceful protest movement, which had been modelled on Martin Luther King’s activism in the US, helped to spark the conflagration that became the Ulster Troubles in 1969. In February that year John was elected MP for Foyle in the Stormont parliament.
At times opposition to the unionist state, the disastrous militarised response of the British government to rising violence on the streets and the armed campaigns of the IRA and loyalists could be physically dangerous. The Hume’s family home in Derry was attacked several times, and on one occasion republicans bugged the house to gather intelligence about the founding member of the SDLP in 1970 who went on to succeed Gerry Fitt as its leader in 1979.
Throughout the maelstrom of sectarian conflict and state repression, Pat ensured their home remained a peaceful haven. She also made those who regularly paid visits to her husband in Derry or across the border at their holiday home in Donegal, politicians and journalists alike, extremely welcome and well looked after.
One SDLP veteran said that Pat also played a critical behind-the- scenes role in quelling disputes: “She was the party’s ultimate diplomat who never had a bad word for anyone. Even if you had a row with John over policy or strategy Pat would maintain warm relations with you. She smoothed over arguments and got people talking to each other,” he said.
As the peace process progressed in the 90s, climaxing with the Belfast agreement, Pat established warm relations too with the families of unionist politicians whom her husband was doing business with, most notably David and Daphne Trimble. The wife of the unionist co-signatory to the 1998 agreement said that she and Pat had been able to “gel together” as their husbands came under pressure from opponents on all sides: “We both lived with the threat of violence hanging over our heads and bringing up children in that … I have lost a true friend.”
The president of Ireland and the family’s long-time friend and former US president, Bill Clinton, paid tribute to Pat Hume’s quiet, unsung but important contribution to peace in Northern Ireland.
John Hume died last year, after he and Pat had been married for six decades. She is survived by their five children, Thérèse, Áine, Aidan, John and Mo, 16 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and her sister, May.