Good Friday this year, 2023, marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, a true turning point in the course of Northern Ireland’s history. In the recent words of Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris:
“The signing of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement on 10 April 1998 brought an end to 30 years of armed conflict, securing the peace that Northern Ireland’s people enjoy in their everyday lives today and helping to move towards a more reconciled society. The peace it has brought is undoubtedly an enormous achievement.”Chris Heaton-Harris
Though shadows of those dark days still hold ominous threat, his words ring true – there is now a generation of young adults that has grown up in a peaceful Northern Ireland, adults who do not live with the same fear, sadness and anger that their parents knew.
In his book, Heads, Gerry mulls over his self perception:
“I had never before thought of myself as belonging to any particular nationality. In real terms, the concept of nationality meant nothing to me. Because of the peculiarity of the entity that was Northern Ireland, I felt neither Irish nor British. Most people in Derry felt either Irish or British. I didn’t feel anything. I just existed.”Gerry Anderson; Heads
Master and Pupil
One of the most notable architects of the Northern Irish peace process that eventually culminated in the Good Friday Agreement was John Hume.
A fellow Derry native, and alumnus of St. Columb’s College, John eventually abandoned his studies for the priesthood in St. Patrick’s College Maynooth, instead changing course to attain an MA in French and History.
Hume later returned to his alma mater, where one Gerald Michael Anderson was to be a pupil of his.
“One indication of the quality of education provided was that although taught by a future Nobel prize winner and by a man, now regarded as Ireland’s greatest living playwright, I managed to learn nothing.
The former, John Hume, seemed to spend most of his time staring dreamily out of the window. Not that I minded, that was how I passed most of my days too.
The latter, Brian Friel … was the kind of teacher who didn’t seem to have much time for children. This was clearly not the profession for him.”Gerry Anderson; Heads
Drivers and Learners
In terms of what drove John Hume, Jay Burbank on Slugger O’Toole puts it in no uncertain terms:
“It is incumbent upon us all to remember what propelled a young teacher in Derry into frontline politics and change the face of Northern Ireland forever. The young teacher was John Hume, born into a working-class catholic family he had been given opportunities not afforded to generations before and attended University. In the words of that other Derry giant (Gerry Anderson) his generation of queens’ graduates [para] “went away to university, learned about the country they lived in and came back pissed off.”Jay Burbank in Slugger O’Toole
Hume had watched the civil rights movement gain pace in the US under Martin Luther King, and learned from it. He understood the real value of negotiation.
Even the Dalai Lama…
As the Dalai Lama commented on Twitter:
“John Hume’s deep conviction in the power of dialogue and negotiations to resolve conflict was unwavering… It was his leadership and his faith in the power of negotiations that enabled the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to be reached. His steady persistence set an example for us all to follow.”Harry Brent; Irish Post, August 4th, 2020
Gerry and his former teacher had much more in common than not – they both deeply understood Derry, and more specifically, Derry people and all they had endured. Each of them saw a bright future for the Maiden City, a dignity for the second city of Northern Ireland and its people. They shared not just a warm and wry wit, but also a very informed, careful optimism about the future.
Three Great Derry Men
On the Irish News, Lynette Fay gives a wonderful account of a particular day in Radio Foyle.
“My John Hume story is about three great Derry men. I was working in Radio Foyle one day. I was in the upstairs office, sitting at the desk at the door. Gerry Anderson and Seán Coyle were working away in the corner. I felt someone hovering over me, who very directly asked, “Who are you?”.
I couldn’t believe that John Hume was talking to me. I explained who I was, he asked me a few more questions and continued on his way. About 10 minutes later, the phone rang. It was reception asking if Seán Coyle was still in the office, because John Hume was here to see him. I thought this very strange. I passed on the message, Seán jumped, took John to the kitchen for a cup of tea, and Gerry Anderson came over to me.
He spoke admirably of the greatness of John Hume. His intelligence, his wisdom, his humility. He told me that John Hume had taught him in St Columbs. Then he told me that things hadn’t been the same with John since he retired. When he stopped, his brain had let him down. He told me this wasn’t common knowledge. I understood.
That moment was the beauty of Derry at work. The scholar looking after the master. Derry people looking after one of their own.”Lynette Fay; The irish News
Coming up to the Good Friday Agreement Anniversary, I couldn’t have put it better myself.