Nelson Mandela 'was against IRA decommissioning'
Published 02/07/2013 | 08:00
I had the unique pleasure of being in Nelson Mandela's company on two occasions – at the Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town and even more memorably in Dublin.
Mandela was a friend of Sir Anthony O'Reilly, the founder and former chairman of Independent News & Media, which owned many of the principal newspapers in South Africa, as well as the Belfast Telegraph.
O'Reilly invited him to deliver the annual Irish Independent lecture at Trinity College in April 2000. A small group of newspaper editors from the Republic and Northern Ireland were invited to lunch with Mandela beforehand at O'Reilly's home in Dublin's Fitzwilliam Square.
A trim, slightly-built man with a beaming smile, the South African legend lit up the dark dining room when he arrived wearing one of his rainbow coloured shirts.
The late Vinny Doyle, then editor of the Irish Independent, sat on one side of Mandela and I had the privilege, as Belfast Telegraph editor, of sitting on the other.
I remember gazing at the back of Mandela's hands as he picked up his knife and fork and thinking how unwrinkled his skin was for an 80-year-old man, who had also spent so many harsh years labouring in prison.
He looked and behaved much younger than his age, regaling the table with reflections of his time in Robben Island prison in Cape Town bay. He enjoyed poking fun at himself and laughed as we laughed at his self-effacing humour.
He reminisced about his 27 years of imprisonment, at the hands of the apartheid regime, showing no bitterness about how he was treated and recalling how he even managed to build trust and friendship with some of the white warders who guarded him.
No doubt there were many times when he was treated roughly, yet he seemed to have only fond memories of good relations with warders, recalling how he would share the contents of the parcels he received, offering them to his guards who, in turn, would respond more sympathetically towards him.
As Mandela told his stories, his soft-spoken, forgiving nature shone through, to the extent that it was hard to fathom that he had also inspired and led a violent and brutal revolution in Africa. However, as the lunch wore on, the other face of Nelson Mandela emerged.
In April 2000, the political row over the IRA's unwillingness to decommission its weapons was dominating the political news during that visit to Dublin; so much so that, before Mandela came to lunch, he had met the Sinn Fein leadership.
"What advice, Mr Mandela, did you offer them," asked the late Aengus Fanning, editor of the Sunday Independent, another guest at lunch.
Mandela did not answer the question directly, but instead embarked on a long explanation of the position in which he found himself in South Africa on the same issue.
He outlined how he faced a wide spectrum of factions within the African National Congress, ranging from liberals, who said all guns should be handed over swiftly, to the mainstream, who felt they should be kept and that such a compromise could not be contemplated so soon.
Fanning repeated the question more pointedly: "But what was your position, Mr Mandela, on decommissioning weapons? And what advice would you give Gerry Adams?" Mandela's mood turned suddenly steely. He looked seriously and sternly at Fanning. "My position, my position... my position is that you don't hand over your weapons until you get what you want... "
The editors around the table were stopped in their tracks. Here was the other Mandela, unflinchingly gritty, never to be taken lightly, who commanded the respect of a huge revolutionary force inside and outside his prison cell.
That evening, I travelled back to Belfast and to the Culloden Hotel, where the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards were taking place. I arrived late off the evening Enterprise train and took my seat apologetically beside the then Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson, who was anxious to know what Mandela had said about Northern Ireland.
Mandelson was visibly shocked when I suggested Mandela did not share the unionists', or British, view on IRA decommissioning and that he thought David Trimble needed to show more political confidence and courage, because he had so much support from London. Mandelson was clearly annoyed at the prospect of such an influential global figure as Nelson Mandela showing sympathy for Sinn Fein and the IRA's position on decommissioning.
Shortly afterwards, Mandela was invited to Downing Street for talks with Prime Minister Tony Blair.
I doubt if Blair could have changed such forthright views on arms decommissioning as Nelson Mandela had expressed over that lunch in Dublin, but I would be very surprised if he didn't try.