Roelf Meyer, Padraig O'Malley and Cyril Ramaphosa

Roelf Meyer, Padraig O’Malley and Cyril Ramaphosa

Mandela spent a day with us
by Professor Padraig O’Malley
6 December 2013

MANDELA — In the coming days, there will be an outpouring of loss and thousands of tributes from every corner of the globe in memory of a man who touched all our lives in one way or another.

I was among the few fortunate who had the opportunity to work with “Madiba,“ as he was known affectionately to all South Africans, on a project associated with Northern Ireland (NI). The University of Massachusetts Boston (UMB) – more specifically its MCormack School – and Mandela collaborated to help the 16 leading negotiators from the major parties in Northern Ireland (NI) who were trying to trash out a peace agreement but had gotten bogged down in recriminations and the usual blame game finger pointing for the impasse. These negotiators included Peter Robinson, now NI’s First minister and Martin McGuinness, deputy First Minister.

Having worked in NI for decades and having had the privilege to track the negotiations in South Africa as they were occurring, which led to the historic 1994 agreement abolishing apartheid in all its ugly forms and giving the voting franchise to millions of Black South Africans, I was convinced that the NI negotiators could learn a lot from their South African (SA) counterparts.

In 1993 UMB’s joint Commencement speakers were Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC’s chief negotiator and Roelf Meyer, chief negotiator for the ruling “whites” National Party, both of whom also received honorary of law degrees. Now, in early 1997, after a flood of back and forths, Mandela dispatched Ramaphosa and Meyer to Belfast to access the situation. On receiving their report Mandela agreed that he would co-host a conference with the McCormack School bringing together the 16 leaders I have mentioned with the key negotiators from all the parties in South Africa who had been integral to reaching SA’s peace agreement. Mandela, however, had one stipulation: each of the NI attendees had to write to him and personally ask for his assistance. Getting these letters was left to yours truly. Not too easy! Mandela then agreed to convene a conference with McCormack in Arniston, a remote secured military base a few hundred miles west of Cape Town.
That conference took place in July 1997 – four days of intense discussions among the Northern Irish themselves and between both and their South Africans counterparts.

Mandela spent the better part of a day with us.

When he arrived, it fell to me to tell him that Peter Robinson’s delegation would not sit in the same room with Sinn Fein present to hear him speak, so, he would have to have two conversations, not one. Mandela smiled, and laughingly said. “A little bit of apartheid!”

As it turned out, the arrangements were serendipitous. Mandela told the IRA/Sinn Fein delegation in his best school admonishing tones that unless the IRA declared a ceasefire, Sinn Fein would never find a place at the negotiating table. In his conversation with Peter Robinson’s delegation he was as equally blunt. Robinson’s party had two demands: the IRA had to declare a ceasefire and decommission (destroy) its armory of weapons. Wrong approach, Mandela told them: If they really wanted Sinn Fein at the negotiating table, they should decouple the issues: ask for a ceasefire now and make the decommissioning of arms a matter that would be addressed during formal negotiations.

And that is just the way the process in NI unfolded, leading to the Good Friday Agreement a year later. When the agreement was announced all the major players parties in Northern Ireland went out of their way to deliver a special tribute to Mandela for the role South Africans had played at a critical point.

At the McCormack School we are experiencing the same sense of loss as millions the world over. But we feel it a little more deeply. Few institutions can say they co-convened a conference with Madiba. It was our finest moment.