Belfast Telegraph

Monday 14 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Why unionists still have a problem with Nelson Mandela

Belfast City Hall is lit up in the colours of the South African flag in tribute to Nelson Mandela. Pic Matt Mackey/Presseye
Belfast City Hall is lit up in the colours of the South African flag in tribute to Nelson Mandela

Notwithstanding the reasonably generous comments made by both Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt, unionism was not represented at any of the events commemorating Nelson Mandela's death.


Mr Robinson, according to a spokesman, was "looking after executive business." Republicanism, on the other hand, in the form of Adams and McGuinness, was there. Unionists have long had a problem with both Mandela and the ANC, believing that the IRA and ANC were brothers-in-arms and that Mandela was a role model for Adams.

Yet, whatever his past, it strikes me that there are few who seriously doubt that Mandela emerged from prison a changed man. His project in South Africa remains unfinished and Mandela was no latterday saint, but he clearly demonstrated that former 'terrorists' can become a force for good. Maybe that's what worries unionists. Being overly lavish in their praise may send the wrong message to Sinn Fein. But in allowing Northern Ireland to be represented by McGuinness, it sends an entirely different message: namely that unionists don't regard Mandela as any more rehabilitated than they regard Sinn Fein.

The unionist ambivalence on Mandela tells us quite a lot about their enduring view of those who began their career as 'terrorists': but mostly it tells us that relationships between them and SF have a long way to go.

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