In The Name Of Peace: John Hume In America
A documentary that blends historical narrative with analysis and strong contemporary relevance, In The Name Of Peace: John Hume In America is one of the highlights of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. Using a mixture of interviews and archive footage, it examines Hume’s efforts to build alliances in the US that would help to transform the situation in Northern Ireland and bring an end to the Troubles. Director Maurice Fitzpatrick feels that Hume’s contribution is too often overlooked or erased when the peace process is discussed, and here he has attempted to correct that. I asked him how it was that he first came to the subject.
“My involvement started with another film I wrote, called The Boys Of St Columb’s, in which John Hume is a central figure – he’s one of the boys of St Columb’s – and I interviewed him for that,” he explains. “That was for the BBC and RTE in Ireland. Out of that subject came my interest in this new dimension, the American dimension, that John Hume did so much to create and cultivate. I thought it was fascinating. I thought it was a great feat of imagination and political nous.”
How has it gone down with American audiences?
“In showings there, it’s been well received. Let’s remember, in Trump’s America the concept of cooperation between Congress and the White House and particularly cooperation between Democrats and Republicans is very considerably less than it was. It’s a very different America and I think it’s poignant for American audiences to see how things worked back in the 1980s, and particularly how they could also engage on a foreign policy issue that wasn’t so divisive. There was a broad welcoming of American support for peace in Northern Ireland. So it must be a little poignant for them to see how the bipartisan cooperation that gave birth to that support is now considerably diminished.”
It’s also very relevant on this side of the Atlantic, I suggest, given the current difficulties at Stormont.
“I do think so – and I would say so, of course, being the filmmaker – but I do think objectively there is a case to be made for that. Hume was a great big stayer, a sticker, and he was able to stick with things despite all the obstacles and barriers that would come in the way. To be a serious politician in Northern Ireland you had to be someone with great tenacity. So the idea that you abandon talks as Arlene Foster has done over a trumped-up issue like the Irish Language Act to bring in direct rule, Hume would have seen that as part of a pattern and tradition that has been time honoured with Unionist rule in Northern Ireland. So he would have been alert to that, I think, and he would have been very determined to assert the validity of power-sharing. So I do think there’s a lot to be learned, for a Northern audience, about how one of the most skilled practitioners in politics ever to emerge from Northern Ireland would have, maybe, addressed himself to such issues as the contemporary ones in Stormont.
“And then, within the film, there’s Hume’s instinct to bring in broader dimensions, not only in America but also European and the UK parliament, Westminster, as well. He brought together all those things and was able to weave together so many strands which were actually very necessary to the fabric of Northern Ireland, and I think that’s also something that even very well-intentioned politicians in the North just now need to learn. There’s a really important Dublin dimension, there’s a really important Washington dimension, and it doesn’t just happen by force of gravity, it has to be created and cultivated. Hume was the person, far more than anyone, who managed to create that architecture.”
Maurice himself has managed to bring together people from different political backgrounds to contribute to the film. How did he achieve that?
“I simply proposed to them that this was what I wanted to do,” he says, “and I was aware that for some people this was maybe not the historical narrative that best suited them or most adhered to their tradition, but I could but try, and I did. It was important that the two US presidents who feature in the film were willing to give their consent because it does lend a lot of weight to what I’m trying to show. And in the case of President Jimmy Carter, I’m not sure how I could have shown the importance of his contribution without it coming straight from him.
“I think there’s something about John Hume and his political life and indeed his legacy that does animate a lot of people to illustrate how crucial a political leader he was in Irish history, and while it was hard, it took some time, it wasn’t that I encountered great resistance either.”
So was John Hume an inspiration to him to keep on pushing until he got what he wanted?
“Ha ha! I suppose he was. One of the things that Bill Clinton says about John Hume is that when others would quit, he would intensify his efforts. He was a very, very determined person and it was important sometimes that when the chips were down he would keep going. I have to say, I just attempted to do justice, I don’t know if I did – to do justice to all the rather brilliant work that he did.”
The film is narrated by Liam Neeson. How did he come to be involved?
“Again, I just wrote to him. I stated what I was doing, I stated the circumstances of the production, and, well, he’s a very obvious choice. He is of that background and he does identify with projects from there that are well-intentioned, and he’s got a lot of goodwill towards Northern Ireland still, so I thought he was the perfect person.”
Then there’s all that fascinating archive material...
“Well, that’s a long story. There’s a melange of a lot of different archive in there. There’s personal archive, unseen before, television archive that goes all the way back to the Sixties… There was archive that I couldn’t get, I couldn’t afford. But I worked with a wonderful woman who was good at clearances and good at knowing where buried archive was. So that was a big part of the process I think, a big part of the budget and a big part of my focus.
“There’s certain indispensable archive in there like Hume remonstrating with the British soldier on the beach. If seen once, that scene is never, ever forgotten. It’s really, really important to see Hume confronting all these historical energies. It wasn’t simply an encounter between two people with different perspectives – it was also a clash, I think, between all of Ireland and England, all of Irish history and all of English history. There’s so many things there. So I knew going in I needed some archive and I couldn’t go away without it.”
Were there other aspects to the story that he might have developed if he had had access to more archive material?
“Good question. I think America is an enormous focus in the film, and I’m obviously an Irish filmmaker and based in Ireland, and so maybe, had I spent longer sifting through the archives in the United States, I would have put more focus on the background of someone like Tip O’Neill or Ted Kennedy. I can imagine that that would have had more prominence. But, you know, John Hume is the name in the title of the film and I did need to keep my focus on him. But there is a treasure trove of archive… There’s quite a collection of people interviewed in the film and I needed to make room for them to tell the story as well.”
So how has it gone down with Irish audiences? Well, says Maurice.
“What was really intriguing to witness was the degree to which people connected this history with contemporary events. That may be partly attributable to one of the early reviews, which homed in on that. And it homed in on something which you may or may not be aware of, namely the tendency to airbrush John Hume out of the narrative of recent historical analysis of the conflict. Now I’m not saying it’s always the case or everyone does it, but there is a faction within Northern Ireland that, in particular, wants to de-emphasise the role that John Hume played, and I think a lot of people, audiences and critics alike, homed in on the way in which the film tries to set the record straight.”
And is he looking forward to the Glasgow Film Festival screening?
“Oh, you’d better believe it! I’m going to be there with bells on. And I think it could be a really interesting place because of aspects of Glasgow’s nationhood and future. And I’m sure the Brexit debate will emerge in the discussion.”
Glasgow also has a large Irish-born population, I note.
“Yeah, there’s that as well. I’m going to be meeting some of them. It’s a fascination to me. I really am curious to see how it goes down. Obviously it’s a different history and a different people, but then again, there are strong commonalities, so I really look forward to the discussion.”
In The Name Of Peace: John Hume In America will screen at the Glasgow Film Festival on 22 and 23 February.