Crowd gathers ahead of Nobel laureate John Hume’s funeral

A socially distanced crowd gathered as the body of Nobel laureate John Hume arrived in Londonderry on Tuesday, ahead of a funeral set to laud his life as a peace broker in Northern Ireland.

Members of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) he led for two decades formed a guard of honour in black face masks, holding lit candles as his cortege arrived at St Eugene’s Cathedral in his native city.

The service on Wednesday is due to be pared down to comply with coronavirus health restrictions. 

Hume’s family have asked mourners to stay at home and light a “candle for peace” at their door in tribute.

Nonetheless a small crowd gathered outside the cathedral fences, craning to see the wicker coffin marked with a simple crucifix carried into the cathedral in the evening.

Hume — who died Monday aged 83 — will be remembered as a key architect of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement ending “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland which killed 3,500.

A passionate nationalist with a total aversion to violence, he took a moderate path during those 30 years of acrimony and shared the 1998 Nobel peace prize with his unionist counterpart David Trimble.

Painted murals of Hume have long been a feature of the walls of Londonderry — also known as Derry — a city bordering Ireland which witnessed some of the darkest chapters of “The Troubles”.

On one, his silhouette ranks besides fellow Nobel laureates Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. 

At the centre a bridge symbolises their commitment to reaching across divides.

At the foot of another, a small floral tribute had been added alongside a slate marker reading: “RIP John Hume — blessed are the peacemakers”.

“John Hume saw very early that one life was too many,” Londonderry resident Jon McCourt told AFP.

“When you’ve carried too many coffins, and you’ve visited too many homes where sons and daughters and fathers and mothers have died, you start to see something different.”

“You get to the point where you understand that the force of argument is greater than the argument of force,” the 68 year-old added.

Hume brought success to Northern Ireland’s long-fraught peace talks by raising them to an international level — seeking the involvement of European and American intermediaries.

But in the city where he was born and emerged as a leader in the civil rights movement for Catholic nationalists his name still rings out like a local celebrity.

“He had the following of the city,” gushed resident Paddy Vincent. 

“He had that wee spark, you know, that some people have it and some don’t.”