Hume was active in the Nationalist Party in the early 1960s, but resigned in 1964, following the disinclination of many in the party to work with the National Political Front.
Hume became an Independent Nationalist member of the Parliament of Northern Ireland in 1969 at the height of the civil rights campaign. He was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1973, and served as Minister of Commerce in the short-lived power-sharing government in 1974. He was elected to the Westminster Parliament in 1983.
In October 1971 he joined four Westminster MPs in a 48-hour hunger strike to protest at the internment without trial of hundreds of suspected Irish republicans. State papers that have been released under the 30 year rule that an Irish diplomat 8 years later in 1979 believed John Hume supported the return of internment, however the SDLP have strenuously denied this.
In 1977, Hume challenged a regulation under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland) 1922 which allowed any soldier to disperse an assembly of three or more people. Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, Lord Lowry held that the regulation was Ultra Vires under Section 4 Government of Ireland Act 1920 which forbade the Parliament of Northern Ireland to make laws in respect of the army.
A founding member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), he succeeded Gerry Fitt as its leader in 1979. He has also served as one of Northern Ireland's three Members of the European Parliament and has served on the faculty of Boston College, from which he received an honorary degree in 1995.
Hume was directly involved in 'secret talks' with the British government and Sinn Féin, in effort to bring Sinn Féin to the discussion table openly. The talks are speculated to have led directly to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.
However the vast majority of unionists rejected the agreement and staged a massive and peaceful public rally in Belfast City Centre to demonstrate their distaste. Many republicans and nationalists rejected it also, as they had seen it as not going far enough. Hume, however, continued dialogue with both governments and Sinn Féin. The "Hume-Adams process" eventually delivered the 1994 IRA ceasefire which ultimately provided the relatively peaceful backdrop against which the Good Friday agreement was brokered.
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