Mandela’s attack on US over Iraq invasion recalled at NUI Galway

Statesman ‘danced with The Corrs’ on his last visit to Ireland

Cyril Ramaphosa, Dr Iognáid Ó Muircheartaigh and Nelson Mandela dancing at the Radisson Hotel after Mandela received an honorary degree at NUI Galway. Photograph: Hany Marzouk

Cyril Ramaphosa, Dr Iognáid Ó Muircheartaigh and Nelson Mandela dancing at the Radisson Hotel after Mandela received an honorary degree at NUI Galway. Photograph: Hany Marzouk


When Nelson Mandela departed from his script at an honorary conferring in NUI Galway in 2003 to attack the US over its invasion at Iraq, the then university president, Dr Iognaid Ó Muircheartaigh, nearly fell off his chair, he recalled yesterday.

Referring to the fact that there had been no world war since 1945 because of the United Nations, Mandela then said that “any organisation, any country, any leader, that now decides to sideline the United Nations – that country and its leader are a danger to the world”.

“And they do so because you are keeping quiet,” Mr Mandela continued, after sustained applause from the audience of 1,000 at his conferring in NUIG’s Bailey Allen Hall. “You are afraid of this country and its leader,” Mr Mandela continued.

In spite of the help which the US president George W Bush had given him in settling the conflict in Burundi, Mr Mandela said that he could “not keep quiet”.

“All of us must have the courage to stand up and condemn what is wrong, and I am grateful that you have allowed an old man, who is more than 100 years old, to come and address you,” Mr Mandela said on what was his last visit to Ireland.

Dr Ó Muircheartaigh, who was NUIG president between 2000 and 2008, said it was “quite amazing” , and recalled that the then US diplomatic representative at the conferring “didn’t look particularly happy during that portion of the speech”.

Honorary doctorate
The Nobel laureate had been awarded the honorary doctorate by NUI chancellor the late Dr Garret FitzGerald, and among the many guests present were senior African National Congress politician Cyril Ramaphosa, Prof Kader Asmal, former SDLP leader John Hume and a Co Clare priest, Fr Brendan Long, from Scarriff, who had developed a friendship with Mandela when he administered on Robben Island.

“We brought Fr Long in as he was in a wheelchair, and Mandela said ‘I remember you’, and it really left a lasting impression on me,” Dr Ó Muircheartaigh said.

The “shout of excitement” that went up when Mr Mandela alighted from a helicopter on the campus on the evening of June 20th, 2003, is a lasting memory for Liz McConnell, NUIG president’s office director of public affairs.

“It was a beautiful summer evening. We had organised for Dordán, the Galway Baroque Singers, Cois Cladaigh choir and Galway Contempo to play, and one of their most moving pieces, Mo Ghile Mear, as he left the hall,”she said.

However, an unscheduled lone piper had also played outdoors as Mandela had arrived at the quadrangle, and “though we hadn’t planned it, it was a beautiful moment,”she said.

Fundraising dinner
Prof Donncha O’Connell, head of the school of law, recalls that after the formal ceremony, Mandela was driven to the Radisson hotel for a fundraising dinner.

He recalls how he “danced with The Corrs”, while fellow Nobel laureate John Hume sang. Dublin financial consultant Michael O’Connor, who was also present, recalls how Mandela took everyone by surprise when he “got up from the table and started boogeying”, and was then joined by Hume and Ó Muircheartaigh.

Mandela left early as his helicopter had to fly in daylight back to Dublin for the opening of the Special Olympics the following day.

“There are world leaders and there are great world leaders,” Prof O’Connell said. “It was greatness that distinguished Mandela from the rest, a greatness that came from a life lived doggedly and authentically in the pursuit of justice while realising that justice was complicated and could only truly be achieved in a spirit of generosity and forgiveness.”