A plan to take Northern Ireland’s political leaders to South Africa in 1997 for a teambuilding safari and informal talks was dismissed as “rubbish” by then taoiseach John Bruton, newly-released State papers show.
But the US-based academic behind the trip - which went ahead minus a proposed “midnight game-hunting expedition” - believes it gave added impetus to the multi-party talks in 1998 which eventually led to the Belfast Agreement.
And, in the week that saw the death of peacemaker Desmond Tutu, Padraig O’Malley of the University of Massachusetts in Boston says Northern Ireland still has something to learn from South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process.
“Time is going by and people have neither truth nor justice,” he says.
Records relating to the 1997 South Africa trip are contained in declassified files from the Department of An Taoiseach.
“Senior members of all the Northern Ireland parties have expressed interest in attending,” wrote an Irish government official about the proposal in January that year.
However, Bruton initially dismissed the idea in a handwritten note: “This is rubbish. It is the sort of indulgence that adds to the problem. It’s rewarding intransigencies to fly people abroad who won’t do business at home. JB.”
An internal communication states: “On a lighter note, I mentioned to you that, in the interests of togetherness it is envisaged that the NI politicians would take part collectively in a midnight game-hunting expedition.”
“The mind boggles!” the taoiseach wrote upon seeing that suggestion (National Archive file: 2021/99/6 ).
As part of the plan, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble was to be offered a private meeting with president Nelson Mandela. An internal note states: “According to O’Malley, the South African government is conscious that the president has been associated in the past with Gerry Adams and would appreciate an opportunity to demonstrate his impartiality on the subject of Northern Ireland.”
O’Malley, who had organised previous cross-party events in Boston in 1992 and 1995 and in Belfast in 1996, told The Irish Times the trip - to a conference centre next to the De Hoop nature reserve in the Western Cape - eventually got Irish government approval with support from tánaiste Dick Spring and Bruton’s special adviser Sean Donlon.
The private meeting for Trimble with Mandela could not be arranged but the South African president had a copy of his book presented with a special dedication: “Dear David, you are one of the few people who can bring an end to the conflict in your troubled country. I am sure you will rise to the occasion. Your friend, Madiba.”
O’Malley recalled: “When I gave it to David he smiled.”
Instead of the safari, a helicopter tour of the Cape and other outings were organised for the party representatives, who included Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin and the DUP’s Peter Robinson.
O’Malley, who first met Tutu in 1985, said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that the late archbishop spearheaded “allowed south Africa to move on, imperfect as the process was”.
“You have to make a trade-off between wanting truth or justice, and most victims want truth over justice. The problem in Ireland is they are stuck with nothing,” said O’Malley, who has since worked on conflict resolution in Iraq and elsewhere.
Part of the reason why the TRC worked in South Africa is that “it’s a huge country. Northern Ireland is so small”. This “intimacy” has created “a kind of latent vengeance that did not exist in South Africa”.
“Desmond Tutu used the word ubuntu - a certain African trait of being willing to forgive.” While some people are today talking about Irish unity, O’Malley says “the legacy questions have to be settled well before that is answered”.
The most pressing question for Northern Ireland, he believes, is: “What do we have to do to take the question of legacy off the table so it won’t contaminate every aspect of life into the future?”