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Nobel peace prize placed John Hume in elite company

THE Nobel Peace Prize was the highest of the many accolades awarded to John Hume.

An occasion of high formality, journalists also saw the Derry man at his most relaxed among friends and family.

While awarded jointly with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, it made Hume one of an elite few who have won the world’s three major peace awards – the Nobel, the Gandhi prize and the Martin Luther King Prize.

The presentation ceremony in Oslo in December 1998 was a celebration of all things Hume, SDLP and Derry as a huge group from the city travelled for the event.

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Anticipation that he would be awarded the prize began to grow after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

This reached fever pitch the day before the award was announced when The Irish News revealed that the Nobel committee had asked the SDLP office in Derry for a copy of Hume’s CV.

Gathered outside the family home at West End Park the following morning, a small group – myself included – watched from the street as Hume sat at a phone table to answer a call.

As a smile broke out across his face, the Derry man gave a thumbs-up to those outside to confirm he had been named peace laureate.

In Oslo, the centre of operations for both the Trimble and Hume parties was The Grand Hotel.

Throughout the Nobel journey, journalists rubbed shoulders with the political great and good.

The day after the presentation, I found myself walking through the frozen streets beside Jean Kennedy Smith (then US ambassador to Ireland and a close Hume ally).

As we talked about the day, it seemed perfectly natural that a reporter from Derry should be walking through Oslo chatting casually to John F Kennedy’s sister. It was that type of event.

David Trimble and John Hume were introduced to the crowds by Bono at a concert at Belfast’s Waterfront hall in 1998 to promote a Yes vote in the Good Friday Agreement referendum

That night, Hume, Trimble and their supporters gathered on the hotel balcony for the traditional serenade of the laureates.

Against the freezing beauty of Oslo, they stood in silence. The soft voices of children singing started to emerge from all streets leading to the front of the hotel.

Then, in a magical moment, the children of Oslo marched into the square carrying lanterns and singing – and the song was the human rights anthem often sung by Hume and the civil rights movement – “We Shall Overcome”.

As Hume and Trimble went off for dinner with the King of Norway, the assembled press and the laureates’ parties embarked on the mother of all parties, joined later by the two men themselves.

Hume’s often hidden sense of fun and craic was evident when – on one occasion – he danced up and down the hotel lobby with honorary secretary of the Ulster Unionist Party and fellow Derry man Jack Allen as another Derry man, Phil Coulter, played the piano.

The celebrations continued the following day at a reception hosted by another Derry man, Irish ambassador to Scandinavia Jim Sharkey, and later at the official Nobel concert (headlined by Norwegian group Aha).

As the Irish party returned home, everyone knew they’d experienced something very special, something which would live long in the memory.

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