The credit union loan that served as a springboard on the road to peace

It’s been 50 years since the phone rang in the Hume house in Derry one day in June and Pat Hume answered to find Senator Edward Kennedy on the line. When she went to tell her husband, he was in disbelief.

“Shoot the other one,” he said, before being persuaded the US senator was on the phone because he’d heard John Hume was “the man to talk to about peace in Ireland.” The senator asked him if he would fly to Bonn in Germany to meet him.

John Hume immediately agreed and then went to the credit union he had started in his hometown to borrow the note.

It would perhaps be an exaggeration to say that the credit union movement helped launch the peace process in Northern Ireland, but only slightly. As John Hume’s friend and colleague Seán Farren points out, you can, in fact, trace a connection between the credit union movement and the Good Friday Agreement.

Not least, he explains, because that meeting financed by a credit union between Hume and Kennedy in June 1972 marked the beginning of a relationship between the two men and a lifelong commitment to building peace in Ireland. through non-violent means that respect difference and diversity. .

Senator Edward Kennedy in 1999. Kennedy was a great admirer of John Hume.

Senator Kennedy later recalled the gist of the meeting: “He [Hume] saw it as a political process that was going to be built on different traditions and mutual respect…I think it’s important to listen to those who risk their lives and try to do so in a non-violent way.


The John and Pat Hume Foundation for Peaceful Change and the Edward M Kennedy Institute will commemorate the 50th anniversary of this crucial meeting on June 23 in Bonn. Yet when a reporter asked John Hume how he would like to be remembered, the man who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with David Trimble in 1998 said he wanted to be remembered. remember him for starting the credit union in Derry.

This famous answer came to mind when John Hume Jnr said last week that there were lessons to be learned from his father’s life that could be used in the current political climate. He said things like respecting difference, respecting diversity, and respecting the rule of law were all things close to his heart.

Absent values

Those same values ​​are utterly absent at the moment as the UK government tramples on the principles of partnership and mutual respect by releasing a bill that ignores significant parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol. There has been a chorus of international condemnation, but the UK government is not ready to back down.

  John Hume and Marian Finucane with Uel Adair (ILCU President) at the unveiling of a commemorative portrait of the Irish founders of the Irish League of Credit Unions Sean Forde, Nora Herlihy and Seamus P MacEoin in 2008.
John Hume and Marian Finucane with Uel Adair (ILCU President) at the unveiling of a commemorative portrait of the Irish founders of the Irish League of Credit Unions Sean Forde, Nora Herlihy and Seamus P MacEoin in 2008.

The bill and its implications will fill many columns in the days and weeks to come, but little will be said about the fundamental principles underlying John Hume’s other great legacy, the credit union movement. At a time when the worst cost of living crisis in four decades is causing real hardship, it’s worth reaffirming the values ​​of a movement that puts people before profit.

John Hume’s son was speaking out about his father’s beliefs in Strasbourg when a sculpture by Elizabeth O’Kane honoring the former MEP and founding member of the SDLP was unveiled in the European Parliament. Let us remember the day when John Hume himself was present at the unveiling of another sculpture, that of the artist Paula O’Sullivan in Ballydesmond on the Cork/Kerry border in honor of the teacher Nora Herlihy, native and co-founder of the credit union movement in the republic.

Financial control

In 2000, John Hume paid tribute to a woman who had done something concrete to help people locked out of access to credit in banking institutions. Like Hume, Nora Herlihy saw that the key to helping people was to develop a system that put them in control of their finances.

Together with Tomás Ó Hogáin and Seamus MacEoin she established the Dublin Central Co-operative Society, an organization which eventually led to the creation of a network of credit unions in Ireland. It all started small, in Nora’s own home and that of her neighbors on Donore Avenue, Dublin, sisters Ni Bhrion, Aingeal and Eileen. They went door to door telling people they were setting up a credit union. The first weekly fundraiser raised £7.

By the time Nora Herlihy died in 1988, the movement had nearly a million members in 500 branches across the country. Nora will be remembered as the greatest woman in Irish history to date, John Hume said more than two decades ago.

We could reawaken the legacy they both left now, as people trying to open new bank accounts as Ulster Bank and KBC leave the Irish market face long waits, red tape and many challenges.

Banking culture

The waves paint an interesting picture; they are full of banking commercials emphasizing customer service and talk shows where customers or future customers tell a story of confusion and difficulty.

It is hard to believe that confidence in the Irish retail banking sector has even been partially restored

Even leaving aside the 2008 banking meltdown and subsequent bailout – and that’s a lot to leave aside – the ensuing tracker mortgage scandal devastated the lives of tens of thousands of people who were denied the more favorable tracker rate. Many have lost their homes.

The final cost to banks in clearing will exceed €1 billion and yet the Central Bank reports, year after year, that banks have yet to embed a culture and mindset that puts the customer first.

No wonder that young customers have opted for digital banks even if they are not under the protection of the financial ombudsman. There has also been a pandemic increase in the number of those frequenting credit unions, many of which are offering new services such as checking accounts and debit cards, making them viable alternatives to banks.


This is a very positive step for several reasons. First, it gives ordinary people access to credit where they might not otherwise have it. Soaring prices are making alarming headlines, but behind each is a story of worry and human suffering as some people are forced to choose between paying rent or buying food to put on the table.

In the past, the credit union saved people from annoying sleepless nights or loan sharks. It is, as John Hume’s close friend Seán Farren puts it, the ultimate self-help organization because it helps ordinary people pick themselves up by their own shoelaces.

The Irish movement also has an international dimension. He helped establish similar voluntary organizations in Sierra Leone and other West African countries.

Today, the banking industry would do well to adopt some of the principles of the credit union movement. However, there is also a risk that credit unions will become more bank-like, ie less customer-focused, as they continue to expand and offer new services.

It is therefore time, on several levels, to recall the principles of John Hume not only in politics but in all areas.