Mrs Pat Hume, the widow of the late Nobel Peace Prize Winner John Hume, who died recently after a short illness, was highly regarded as one of the silent pillars of the Irish peace process.
Her death came just over a year after the death of her husband, a former leader and founder of the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and I remember reporting on his passing for the Daily Telegraph.
Mrs Hume’s influence in Irish politics - working with her husband - stretched back in history to the beginning of the civil rights movement in Londonderry in the 1960s.
Her work continued during the very dark days of the Troubles, through to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which ushered in the current peace process and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Mrs Hume ran Mr Hume’s Westminster Foyle constituency office dealing with community issues, housing and poverty in the city and throughout the constituency.
A former teacher by occupation, Mrs Hume was awarded the Irish Red Cross Lifetime Achievement award in 2018.
However, it will be the encouragement which she constantly gave her husband in developing the so-called Hume/Adams talks with Sinn Fein, which ultimately led to the Provisional IRA declaring its initial ceasefire in 1994 which perhaps she will be most remembered for politically.
In the 1980s, John Hume took the huge political risk of engaging with talks with Gerry Adams, then President of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing - a move which earned Mr Hume considerable criticism both from within and outside his party, especially as the IRA continued with its terror campaign.
However, it is believed that it was Mrs Hume’s devotion to her husband’s cause for peace which enabled the SDLP leader to continue with the talks.
Those talks eventually bore political fruit in April 1998 with the historic signing of the Good Friday Agreement. That agreement was supported overwhelmingly in referenda on both sides of the Irish border, and with pro-Agreement parties from Unionism and nationalism becoming the majority voice in the inaugural Assembly elections of June 1998.
For his work in the peace process, John Hume became a joint Nobel Peace Laureate with the then Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, now Lord Trimble. However, no one could underestimate the influence of Mrs Pat Hume, not just in her background role in the peace process, but in the efforts of her husband.
Even Unionists recognised the considerable influence which Mrs Hume had on her husband in terms of political support and encouragement.
I personally knew what a human pillar strength Mrs Hume was to her husband in 1987 when my late father, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, then a UUP councillor in Ballymena, County Antrim, held secret talks with then Northern Ireland Office Minister Dr Brian Mawhinney (the late Lord Mawhinney) at our then family home in the north Antrim hills.
For two previous years, Unionists had refused to engage with the NIO because of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s decision to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985 giving the Irish Republic its first real say in the running of Northern Ireland since partition in the 1920s.
UUP leader Jim Molyneaux gave my father permission to open dialogue with the NIO via Mawhinney. I was my dad’s note taker. There was considerable shock at first when it was mentioned the progress which Mr Hume was making in talking to Sinn Fein compared to this serious initial meeting between the NIO and the UUP.
During the coffee break when the chat became more light-hearted, Pat Hume’s name was mentioned and the support she was giving her husband.
Looking back, the legacy of Pat Hume will be that tremendous encouragement she gave her husband in continuing with those talks with Sinn Fein against all the criticism and the uphill odds for success.
But her passing should also provide us with an opportunity to honour what I have termed ‘the silent pillars’ of the peace process - those people who played a part, however small, in bringing about the ceasefires, the Good Friday Agreement, and helping to maintain that peace (however fragile at times).
In some cases, their vital roles will never be known. For others, it was simply a chat over a cup of tea which eased tensions and nudged that peace process that little bit forward.
If the concept of a Shared Island ever becomes a firm political reality here in Ireland, those ‘silent pillars’ will have laid the foundations.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.