By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)
There was a joke doing the rounds in Derry about 30 years ago. What is the difference between God and John Hume? Answer: God is everywhere. John Hume is everywhere but Derry.
As with all jokes, there was an element of truth in it. It’s reckoned that Hume was clocking up about a quarter of a million miles a year in the late eighties/early nineties, but his was a successful strategy.
That’s why Michelle O’Neill’s visit to Washington this week is a smart move.
Over many years Hume identified and cultivated key figures in US and European politics. It was a long-term strategy. From the late seventies he was a well known figure in the corridors of power in Washington, New York and Brussels.
He put the case of northern nationalists to politicians and officials at the heart of governments. He sought to maximise the Irish-American connection with politics here.
Nevertheless, it took years to bear fruit in the 1980s and 90s. Hume’s cultivation of US Speaker Tip O’Neill (1977-1987) enabled O’Neill to influence President Reagan to encourage Mrs Hacksaw to reach a deal with Dublin in 1985.
Now it’s appropriate for Michelle O’Neill to follow the same path. Sinn Féin now represents 76 per cent of northern nationalists, is the largest party in the north, is entitled to hold the position of First Minister, and controls the majority of councils in the north.
Furthermore, unlike the SDLP in its heyday, SF is a national party, the largest party on the island. In short, Michelle O’Neill in Washington speaks from a position of unparalleled electoral strength and authority.
It’s obvious why she’s in America this week – to get her spoke in before Rishi Sunak arrives.
The contrast could not be more obvious. Sunak represents no-one in the north, has no legitimacy to speak for anyone here. Yet he is trying to concoct a secret deal with the DUP that will provide them with a fig leaf to cover a return to Stormont.
Sunak also has to overcome the handicap of his botched meeting with Biden in April. Who can forget the chilly ‘bi-latte’ meeting, with Sunak pretending to drink out of his empty cup to cover the silence?
It’s pretty obvious that Sunak has no right to make a deal with the DUP over the heads of the other parties here and the Irish government. O’Neill will make that clear. She has powerful friends in Congress and willing ears among officials on Capital Hill and the White House.
On her part it’s a clever initiative to assert that she and SF speak for the north – not a British prime minister, leader of a nativist party that has been brazenly unionist-biased since 2010.
The initiative takes a leaf out of Hume’s playbook which is to be a presence where it counts – Washington, Brussels, Dublin – and thereby not to allow anyone else to purport to speak on behalf of northern nationalists, patronisingly or in any other mode. O’Neill and SF are the legitimate voice of the north.
There’s unfortunately one element missing in this scenario. Hume also always had the ear of the Irish government. SF doesn’t. They’re a rival to the Irish government in a way Hume never was.
Hume and the Irish government always spoke with one voice (apart from tetchiness between Hume and Haughey) in the US and Brussels. That’s no longer the case. Micheál Martin no longer talks about Irish reunification, but concentrates on appeasing unionism with pious claptrap about reconciliation, a meaningless, undefined concept which enables him to do absolutely nothing.
Varadkar, on the other hand, says advancing the Good Friday Agreement’s provision for a referendum is ‘counterproductive’. Same conclusion: do nothing.
Meanwhile, both Martin and Varadkar conspire with their budget surpluses to exclude the party of northern nationalists from government in Dublin. O’Neill has her work cut out, but she’s on the right path.