John Hume, a founder-member of Northern Ireland's mainly Catholic SDLP political party wikimedia.org

Pope honors Irish leader John Hume with papal knighthood

By  Michael Kelly, Catholic News Service
  • July 9, 2012

DUBLIN - One of the key architects of the Northern Ireland peace process has been honored by Pope Benedict XVI for his commitment to peace and reconciliation in the region.

John Hume, a founder-member of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party, was credited with initiating the political dialogue that brought about the 1994 cease-fire by the Irish Republican Army. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998.

Pope Benedict named Hume as a Knight Commander of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St Gregory the Great. Hume and his wife, Pat, were on pilgrimage in Lourdes, France, July 5 when he learned of the news. Friends said he was "delighted" with the knighthood.

Msgr. Eamon Martin, diocesan administrator of Hume's native Derry Diocese, said the honor is "in recognition of his outstanding services to Catholic social teaching in the area of peace."

"Mr. Hume has worked tirelessly for peace and justice, at considerable personal cost and risk. In doing this, he has testified to the fundamental dignity of human beings and the universal, inviolable and inalienable rights presented by Blessed John XXIII in 'Pacem in Terris,'" he said referring to the 1963 encyclical on peace and justice.

Born in a Catholic area of Derry in 1937, Hume studied for the priesthood for several years before returning to his native city as a teacher in a Catholic high school. His experience of the hardship and injustice that the minority Catholic community experienced coupled with his grounding in Catholic social teaching led to his involvement in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.

The organization campaigned for an end to discrimination against Catholics in the provision of housing and in employment. In 1972, 14 Catholic activists were shot dead by the British army at a civil rights march in Derry on what became known as Bloody Sunday. In 2010, a judicial inquiry ruled that the killings were unlawful and British Prime Minister David Cameron apologized to the families.

In contrast to the IRA, which engaged in a paramilitary campaign to end British rule in Northern Ireland, Hume argued that if Northern Ireland were to leave the British union and become part of the Republic of Ireland -- a long-cherished hope of most Catholics in the region -- it would have to be by exclusively peaceful and democratic means.

It was a Belfast-based priest, Father Alec Reid, who convinced Hume to begin his dialogue with IRA's political representatives, a move which saw him heavily criticized, including by members of his own party. The dialogue led to a 1994 cease-fire by the IRA, which was quickly followed by a similar cease-fire by Loyalist paramilitaries who were fighting an insurgency to keep Northern Ireland a part of Britain.

The 1998 peace agreement -- known as the Good Friday Agreement because of the day it was signed -- was hailed as a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

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