Mandela remarks on ceasefire reflected close links with Irish republicans

Opinion: Comparison of situation in Ireland to that in Rhodesia was invalid and maladroit

There was a close bond between Irish republicans and the ANC and its armed wing, MK, which was co-founded by Nelson Mandela in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. Photograph: Frank Miller

There was a close bond between Irish republicans and the ANC and its armed wing, MK, which was co-founded by Nelson Mandela in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. Photograph: Frank Miller

Sat, Dec 28, 2013, 00:01

The presence of Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams as a member of the honour guard at Nelson Mandela’s funeral may have appeared slightly incongruous to some. It may be better understood, perhaps, in the context of an embarrassing incident, rarely referred to afterwards, that occurred during Mandela’s Dublin visit of July 1990.

The then deputy president of the African National Congress, recently freed from prison, had been invested with the freedom of the city two years previously. Now he was guest of honour at a civic reception in the Mansion House. On the following day he delivered an inspirational address to the Dáil. Everywhere he went he was cheered by rapturous crowds.

His charisma infused the warm July days. He thrilled his listeners, setting out his dream of an equal society in South Africa. He spoke of Ireland’s “consistent support” in confronting apartheid. He praised the work of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement (IAAM). He met the Dunnes Stores workers who had boycotted South African fruit imports.

It all went well until a press conference at Dublin Castle at which he was asked if the IRA should be admitted to talks on the future of Northern Ireland without first ending its campaign of violence.

He fumbled for an answer. “The issue here,” he said eventually, “is that people are slaughtering one another, when they could sit down and address the problems in a peaceful manner.”

It seemed a harmless response, but in the context of backchannel discussions taking place it was unfortunate. The Irish and British governments were ad idem that there could be no place for the IRA in talks unless there was an end to violence. The IRA believed it could have it both ways, with the option of renewed violence if it failed to achieve its objectives.

Did Mr Mandela believe the IRA could take his words as an endorsement of this position, a reporter asked?

That was the point at which he might have retreated. Instead he pressed on. The British government had taken part in negotiations over Rhodesia, he said, while conflict was continuing. There was no insistence that the Patriotic Front forces of Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo should lay down their arms. That was the precedent.

The comparison was invalid and maladroit. Mugabe and Nkomo were fighting an illegal regime that had seized Rhodesia in 1965 in order to preserve white rule. Unlike the IRA, there was no political pathway open to them. The story was quickly running on the agency wires. But when questioned later on RTÉ’s Today Tonight, Mandela yet again refused to say that that the IRA should call a halt to its campaign as a prelude to talks.

“I was asked a question by a reporter on the IRA,” he said. “My reply was based not on the relations between the IRA and the British government but on a general principle which would apply to whoever is involved.”

But Adams was clear that he saw Mandela’s comments as applying to the IRA and the British. He “welcomed” them and urged a “positive response” from Margaret Thatcher. Political opinion in Britain swiftly and unanimously rejected any comparison with Rhodesia.

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