The Annual Lecture, given in the Nehru Centre on 25 October, was delivered by John Hume, MP, MEP, who first became prominent in the political life of Northern Ireland when in 1968 he became involved in the nonviolent civil rights movement. He was leader/deputy leader of the SDLP 1979-2001 and played an active mediating role in the many stages of talks between the two sides, Nationalist and Unionist, over some 20 years which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year and most recently received the Gandhi Peace Prize in India. The following is a slightly abridged version of the Lecture.
When I received the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Prize on the first day of February this year, I spoke of my deep sense of pride at being honoured in memory of one of the greatest leaders – and one of my greatest inspirations – of the 20th century.
I also asked the question whether we as people have the capacity to choose peace over war, friendship over hatred, compassion for our fellow human beings over ruthless self-interest.
The inescapable conclusion I drew then was that the ideas and ideals by which Gandhi lived did not just have a relevance for his own people and his own time, his ideas and ideals have a resonance that will echo for all people and all time. And perhaps now more than ever we must look to Gandhi in these unstable and uncertain times of change and challenge:
- Change and challenge for the people of Ireland as we work to restore and deliver the Good Friday Agreement in an atmosphere of instability and uncertainty.
- Change and challenge in Europe as we prepare for enlargement of the European Union in 2004.
- Change and challenge throughout the entire world as we seek to leave behind the tragedies of past conflicts and injustices and build instead a new order of peace, justice and equality for all people, regardless of the colour of their skin, the creed of their faith, or the continent of their birth.
Our response to these changes and challenges will shape the world for many decades to come.
We stand in the early days of the 21st century. Behind us is a century of unprecedented bloodshed and suffering, but also of profound peaceful thinking and progress towards a shared future. The same century that gave us two world wars that claimed the lives of 35 million people [this is almost certainly a substantial underestimate thus reinforcing the Lecturer’s point – Ed] also gave us the European Union and the United Nations. Both the EU and the UN are built upon the concepts of peace, progress and stability and both share the objective of a end to all war.
As a follower of Martin Luther King in the late 1960s and ever since, I understand that to believe in King is to believe in Gandhi. Appropriately then, it was King who encapsulated the true import of Gandhi when he said:
The ‘turn the other cheek’ philosophy and the ‘love your enemies’ philosophy were only valid, I felt, when individuals were in conflict with other individuals; when racial groups were in conflict a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was.
Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. Love for Gandhi was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking.
Social transformation through nonviolence. This was the essence of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement in the late 1960s of which I was a member. Our people demanded to be given equal rights and opportunities. Our goals were equality, justice and fair play. But we also demanded that not one drop of blood be spilled in the pursuit of this honourable goal.
The people of Ireland have always overwhelmingly opposed the use of violence. I have often articulated my view that there is real value and honour in living for a cause, but only evil and futility in killing for a cause. This is a view that naturally reflects the thinking of Gandhi, who said, “the bomb-throwers have discredited the cause of freedom, in whose name they threw the bombs.” There is no place for beatings, bombs or bullets in Ireland today. Violence serves only to perpetuate confli