Irish independence influenced other colonies, say UCD speakers

Former presidents Mbeki and Mkapa, and former minister Khurshid in After Empire talk

Ireland's revolutionary period was cited as inspirational by retired politicians from three former British colonies during a discussion, After Empire, last night in University College Dublin.

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki, former president of Tanzania Benjamin Mkapa and former minister for external affairs of India, Salman Khurshid, spoke of how Ireland fitted into their own national independence narratives during a conversational encounter before an audience of 700 in UCD's O'Reilly Hall as part of the Decade of Centenaries.

Included among them was President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina.

The Indian constitution was “greatly inspired” by Ireland, said Mr Khurshid. Politicians who strove for Indian independence, achieved in 1947, felt a commonality with those in Ireland who also fought a power subjugating them.


Emmet inspiring

“There was a general sense of comfort about Ireland,” he said, adding, however, “We achieved freedom largely through peaceful processes . . . because of Mahatma Gandhi. In that sense there was a contrast [with Ireland] but the spirit was the same.”

Mr Mbeki said that within the South African struggle against apartheid, there were many "who could trace their families back to Ireland" and their involvement helped introduce the African National Congress to the history of the Irish struggle.

He said in particular, Robert Emmet's last address before his sentencing and execution in 1803 was "very inspiring" for the ANC as was the poetry of WB Yeats, such as Easter 1916, which had people in South Africa seeing Irish literature through the prism of struggle.

Mr Mkapa said Tanzania’s pre- and post-independence experience of Ireland was largely through contact with missionaries. Knowledge of Ireland’s struggle for independence was “minimal”. “But we had Irish missionaries and they gave us a very good education. They gave us the courage to stand up to the British,” he said.

He drew laughter when noting how, in the pre-independence Tanzanian education system, schooling was essentially English, including history and geography.

“We learnt everything about Wales and Scotland,” he said, adding that when coming to Ireland now, his son said “isn’t that west of Cardiff?”

The question of the Commonwealth came up – its value and whether Ireland should rejoin. Mr Khurshid said it had a good use as “a place where you share ideas”. There was agreement that it was not an appropriate forum for resolving complex world problems.

English language valued

All three men extolled the nationally binding value of the English language, especially in countries such as India and

South Africa

which were both multi-ethnic and multi-lingual.

Mr Mbeki felt the United Nations needed to be recalibrated to take account of global changes involving emerging nations.

For Mr Khurshid, the challenge of the future was coming to terms with China. At present, he said, "there was a sense of discomfort but we want to be partners rather than opponents". India's approach to helping Africa was partnership, he said.

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times