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.
The Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock, said the IRA were "gangsters" and would have no concessions. Later in London, Mandela said his remarks had been "distorted" and that he had been "dragged into a conflict not of my making". In Dublin the government, perhaps prudently, refused to comment.
The British press was condemnatory. The Guardian said he was attempting to "legitimise murder as an instrument of democratic politics". The Daily Telegraph reproved him for "foolish words." The Irish Times (then edited by the present writer) described Mandela's comments as "dangerous" and "not well informed". It noted he had failed to take three opportunities to row back.
The episode was quickly glossed over. Commentators generally took the view that Mandela had not fully apprehended the differences between Northern Ireland and Rhodesia. However, revelations since would tend to suggest that he knew precisely what he was saying and that he was, in fact, trying to give leverage to the IRA’s demands.
It is now known that there were well- developed links between Provisional Sinn Féin and the ANC and, in particular, between the IRA and Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), its military wing.
The late Kader Asmal, founder of the IAAM and later an ANC minister in Mandela's cabinet, revealed in his memoir, Politics in my Blood, that he had acted as an intermediary between MK and the IRA in the 1980s. Asmal recounted that he had contacted Adams through Michael O'Riordan of the Communist Party of Ireland, to arrange secret military training for MK cadres. In 1980, he wrote, specialised IRA personnel travelled to South Africa to help the MK plan its high-profile attack on the Sasolburg oil refinery, south of Johannesburg.
The relationship between the ANC and the Provisional movement continued to deepen. In the run-up to the Belfast Agreement, Sathyandranath Maharaj, former ANC militant (and a minister in Mandela's government), played a significant role in persuading hardline IRA leaders to support the Adams-Martin McGuinness line in the peace process.
By 1990, when Mandela visited Dublin, the ANC and the Provisionals had come to see themselves as brothers in arms. Loyalties were strong, as were the loyalties between the ascendant ANC and its supporters in the “front-line states” during the struggle. It would have been unthinkable for Mandela to lend to his weight to any side of the argument other than that of the ANC’s friends and allies.
He almost succeeded in walking the tightrope; it was the unfortunate comparison with Rhodesia that tripped him. Four years later the IRA called a ceasefire and in time accepted that it could not continue with violence while sitting at the negotiating table. Who knows if that epiphany might not have come about sooner had Nelson Mandela simply told the IRA in 1990 to put the guns away?