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‘Madiba’ helped bring peace to Northern Ireland

A mural depicting the former South African President Nelson Mandela was painted on a cooling tower in Soweto.AP/file/STF

In the coming days, there will be thousands of tributes from every corner of the globe in memory of Nelson Mandela, who seemingly touched all of our lives in one way or another.

I was among the fortunate few who had the opportunity to work with "Madiba,'' as he was known affectionately to South Africans, on a project associated with Northern Ireland. The McCormack School at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and Mandela collaborated to help the 16 leading negotiators in the Northern Ireland peace talks, which had gotten bogged down in the usual blame game and were at an impasse. The negotiators included Peter Robinson, now Northern Ireland's first minister, and Martin McGuiness, the deputy first minister.

Having worked in Northern Ireland for decades and having tracked South Africa's peace negotiations as they were occurring, leading to the historic 1994 agreement that abolished apartheid, I was convinced that the Northern Ireland negotiators could learn a lot from their South African counterparts.


But Mandela had one stipulation: Each of the attendees had to write to him and personally ask for his assistance. That was not an easy task to accomplish!

Mandela then agreed to hold the conference in Arniston, a remote military base 120 miles southeast of Cape Town. The conference took place in July 1997, and there were four days of intense discussions between the Northern Irish and the South Africans.

Mandela spent the better part of a day with us. When he arrived, he learned that Robinson's delegation would not sit in the same room with Sinn Fein to hear him speak, so he would have to have two conversations, not one. "A little bit of apartheid," laughed Mandela.

As it turned out, the arrangements were serendipitous. In his best admonishing tones, Mandela told the IRA/Sinn Fein delegation that unless the IRA declared a ceasefire, Sinn Fein would never find a place at the negotiating table. In his conversation with 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 the negotiators: 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 Northern Ireland unfolded, leading to the Good Friday Agreement a year later. When the agreement was announced, all the major players in Northern Ireland went out of their way to pay a special tribute to Mandela for the role South Africans had played at a critical point.

Padraig O'Malley is professor of peace and reconciliation at the McCormack School at UMass-Boston.