Hume, a visiting lecturer in the History Department this year, spoke before an audience of approximately 100 administrators, faculty, students and guests. He insisted there were encouraging signs for a Northern Irish settlement despite an apparent lack of progress in current negotiations and uncertainty over how they would be affected by a widely predicted change in the British government.
"For the last nine months, the British and Irish governments, and representatives from Northern Ireland, have been together in the same room," said Hume, leader of the Northern Ireland Social Democratic and Labor Party. "They haven't reached an agreement yet, but the fact that they're all together in one room is huge progress.
John Hume addresses the audience in Gasson 100 on March 13. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
"Who would have thought five years ago that [Rev.] Ian Paisley would sit in the same room as the Irish government?" added Hume, referring to one of Northern Ireland's most strident and visible Protestant political leaders.
The talks are on hold until after the British national election in June, Hume noted. Acknowledging that most observers are predicting defeat for Prime Minister John Major and the Conservative Party, which has been in power for almost two decades, Hume said it was unclear whether a new Labor Party government would hinder or abet the peace process. He pointed out that the Conservatives had achieved some positive results, producing the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement and often quelling aggressions among the Unionist-Protestant factions.
However, Hume said, Major's weakening hold on power in recent years ultimately influenced the British government's role in the peace process. Needing the support of Unionists, he explained, Major was reluctant to risk antagonizing them by, for example, negotiating with Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army.
"The numbers game in Westminister has had a serious effect on the peace process," he said. "If John Major had a clear majority, in my opinion, we would have had peace by now."
But Hume stressed that the process must not depend upon which party holds power in Britain. To build upon the progress achieved thus far, Hume said, Irish nationalists and Protestants and Unionists alike must relinquish old attitudes.
Saying "it is people who have rights, not territories," Hume said Irish nationalists must not pursue a reunited Ireland to the detriment of those who do not favor such a move. Using violent means to unite divided people, he said, only deepens the divisions.
By the same token, Hume continued, Protestants and Unionists should "have confidence in their own geography and own numbers," and not resort to anti-Catholic discrimination and intimidation to protect their religious or cultural identity.
Hume said all parties in Northern Ireland must look to their common interests, and in doing so help all the people of Northern Ireland. He noted how he and Paisley, both members of the European Parliament, had overcome their differences and worked together on a proposal that would bring economic and social benefits to their country. In fact, the two had arranged a special meeting with representatives from various Northern Irish community groups to discuss the proposal - an event, he said, which received little or no media coverage.
Hume also said the Clinton Administration continues to have an active involvement in the peace process, and added that he was scheduled to meet later that day with some of President Clinton's top advisors.
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