If John Hume’s death demonstrated anything, it is how much we took him for granted and, as an extension of that, how much we have taken his life’s achievement for granted too.
Like many great prophets, Hume didn’t live long enough to see the fulfilment of his dream. But, like Moses, he has taken us to the Promised Land. We are in his debt, and we also have a solemn duty to continue the journey he started us on.
If we are looking at a lasting memorial, it must be to bring to fruition his vision of a just society built on mutual respect; a society that allows each of its citizens to reach their full potential; and a society which is a beacon for the cause of peace in an increasingly restless world.
On the floor of St Paul’s Cathedral, there is a tribute to Christopher Wren which says – if you want to see his monument look about you.
That should be the case for John Hume too.
There are many conventional ways of commemorating important figures – statues, grand buildings, naming institutions after them, and these have value. But I worry that things like that let us off the hook.
We’ve ticked the box and we can move on.
But our obligation to John Hume is greater than that, given what he gifted us in dedicating his life – sacrificing it almost – to the cause of peace and reconciliation.
He is too big a figure, and too important, for his memory to be outsourced to a plinth.
We must be imaginative enough to find a way of creating a living memorial dedicated to continuing his work, and transforming people’s lives.
The primary focus of that memorial should be the continued need for reconciliation in ‘these islands’ – his imaginative phrase which dispenses with unhelpful constitutional nomenclature; but it must also have an international dimension too.
He was a citizen of Derry, but he was also a citizen of the world.
John Hume has already set out the agenda.
A living memorial needs to be about combatting poverty. This is core to creating social justice. It needs to be about reconciliation, and that comes through a recognition that we are all created equal. Lasting peace, which must be his legacy, will be built on equality, justice and reconciliation.
This is not as neat a solution as putting up a statue or renaming a bridge; and I am certainly not advocating setting up an organisation that itself becomes institutionalised. As we know to our cost, institutions alone are not enough if we want to transform society.
John Hume certainly knew that. He achieved most when he worked round not through institutions.
Yes, let’s have John Hume Bridge, let’s have a statue outside the Guildhall, let’s name a college after him – but more important than all those things, let us each become the embodiment of what he stood for: nationalist and unionist.
Let us encourage our young people to become fearless champions for justice and for peace. Leaders for their own time.
Let John Hume’s monument be a people at peace with themselves and the world around them; concerned more for their fellow human beings than for themselves; a people prepared to put their own concerns second in the cause of a greater good which enriches us all.
The article first appeared in the Irish News on Friday September 5