Nelson Mandela’s critical role in Northern Ireland’s extraordinary journey
by Quintin Oliver for Forum for Cities in Transition
6 December 2013
As part of my responsibility in managing the “Yes” campaign for the referendum on the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, our team learned that Nelson Mandela would be interested in coming to Northern Ireland, as an endorsement for positive moves to an accommodation.
But Unionist politicians were not interested, because some saw him as an epitome of what was most objectionable about the accord — former prisoners leap-frogging into Government, former terrorists securing Ministerial roles and all without decommissioning of weapons.
So the Unionists vetoed the offer; ironically, so did Nationalists, but for entirely different reasons – they were concerned it might upstage the free concert they had arranged for Bono!
While Nelson Mandela was regarded as a terrorist by some, it is worth remembering that he did oversee the peaceful transfer of power, through constitutional negotiations and a robust conflict mitigation process. He was elected to office in 1994, and served as President of South Africa from 1994-99.
As that moral icon of the planet, it was extraordinary the power Mandela carried, his image, and the significance of his word. On our campaign team, we were surprised that that wasn’t even then shared across our community; some thought that it could be used against them politically.
Yet David Trimble and Jeffrey Donaldson were two Unionist politicians who were part of the seminal 1997 visit to South Africa, to meet Nelson Mandela and other post-apartheid leaders from all sides. Organised by Professor Padraig O’Malley, it was necessary to have separate planes for the Unionist and Nationalist delegates. Nor would they sit in the same room to be addressed by Mandela.
Mandela was relaxed about that, but made a serious point — you have to negotiate with your enemy, you have to talk with them; you can’t just talk with your allies.
In this way, our progress is remarkable, where today discussions take place face-to-face among political adversaries. Many deeply contested places haven’t commenced that process. My joy would have been unbounded had this been sealed by First Minister Robinson and deputy First Minister flying together in the same plane, this time as partners.
For Northern Ireland, Nelson Mandela played a critical role in our extraordinary journey of conflict transformation — and in only what I believe will be seen as the relatively short period of 15 years!