Northern Ireland reflections on the “real” Mandela, man and myth

Hooray. There is still a role for newspapers. The Guardian proves it with their balancing coverage of the early obsequies for Nelson Mandela who it might be thought is one of their natural heroes.   Restoring a human dimension after the hours of adulation and longueurs of 24/7 TV news is Simon Jenkins’ column and the obit by David Beresford, a brilliant South African born reporter and a former Ireland correspondent for the paper who was sadly ill for years. His obit shows us what we missed down the years.

Jenkins writes :

Machiavelli would have argued that it was easy for Mandela to be good. He was in prison and his courage was essentially personal. His moment of true goodness was brief. He understood from his study of British law the concept of legitimacy in government and the role of compromise. To them he added an instinct for reconciliation, but in part because he knew that without it he was unlikely to win.

Human history may crave myths, but needs to know them as such. I once argued with the writer Jan Morris against the nonsense attributed by some Welsh to Owen Glendower. She protested that “truth” in history was what people came to believe it to be. All tribes need legends, the better to cement their identity. Legends are not made to be true.

Yet history is a discipline not a faith. The world may crave a “Mandela-like icon”, but to what end? For serious media outlets to discuss him alongside Mother Teresa, Gandhi and Jesus of Nazareth is barking mad. He was Nelson Mandela.

With our continuing fascination with the South African experience, these reflections on history throw out echoes that Northern Ireland needs to answer today. Years ago I might have written that we produced pygmies by comparison with South Africa but that would be a racist insult to one of southern Africa’s original  marginalised people.

Many who are devoted to the imperialist analysis of British political behaviour will dismiss the idea of British “ compromise” entirely .  Fundamentally the Brits were to blame but somehow we had to bomb and  shoot  at home to make the point.  This is the depressing view which for decades was the ultimate justification for the “armed struggle.”  Others of us even at the time seethed with frustration that in the crucial early phases of the late sixties “the British concept of legitimacy in government and compromise” was markedly absent in unionism.  True, unlike Afrikaners they had a local majority but they failed to acknowledge that majorities have to make satisfactory compromises too, to ensure stability and achieve basic consent. The unfortunate O’Neill was no de Klerk, nor would he have been allowed to have been as events quickly proved.

Adams’ and McGuinnesss’ bids for a Mandela-like reputation does not lack popular appeal  but  deserves mature credibility only in the more recent context of the 1997 ceasefire. Unlike his, theirs  is becoming increasingly tarnished as the IRA’s cause and campaign are subject to more searching examination..

Whatever your particular analysis, Unionism ‘s early offers were too little too late, the British governments and Irish governments  huffily reverted to the half remembered  defaults  of the early 1920s for far too long and paramilitary violence on both sides filled the vacuum . On both sides too charisma shouted from extreme positions as generally malign forces. The outlines of a solution were available by 1973 but to their enduring shame, no side was willing or able to pay the price of compromise. And so we dragged it out for as long as Mandela was in prison.

Both “reconciliators” (where did that word come from?) and the harder of heart can claim a slice of Mandela himself, as Ed Curran has recalled from a Dublin lunch with editors in 2000  :

“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.”

For you the parallels may work or they may not. Because of decades of stasis it came to pass that peace had to be negotiated with the perpetrators of violence when unlike South Africa a different earlier settlement might have been possible.   Centre ground nationalism in the form of the SDLP was superseded, its problem being that “ you people don’t have guns”, as Blair observed. These were people with whom it would always have been possible to do business much earlier if only unionism had shaken off their paranoia about an Irish takeover.   By contrast the willingness  to do a deal before they thought their position was untenable was the Boers’ achievement under even more taxing conditions.

All this may be no more than a pang of historical regret. Who today who would swap our problems for South Africa’s?  Our battle lines may still be visible but they can fade or crossed with or without a breakthrough from the Haass talks. Of one thing we can be sure. It will need more of that “British “sense of compromise” whether or not you believe that  habit of compromise is just another myth. We are in a much better position than in 1973-74 but we cannot afford to let the opportunity  slip  to improve it further.

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  • Mc Slaggart

    Brian Walker

    ” Fundamentally the Brits were to blame”


    Sorry who told you that. I thought everyone agreed the basic fault was with the Unionist not being able to accept the democratic process.

    What I have heard people complain about is the fact that the “Brits” let Unionism run Northern Ireland without any “sense of compromise” .

  • @Brian,

    Much more balanced was a piece on Mandela published in Washington’s National Journal by Oxford University historian and former South African R.W. Johnson who left the country in the 1970s.

    and another piece by him on contemporary South Africa:

    So maybe people will stop looking at a mythical South African transition model and hopefully this will inspire those in NI to create a passable model that others will want to imitate.

    Northern Ireland is different from South Africa and more like Israel/Palestine in that there is a binary pair of ethnic groups in confrontation. In South Africa there was a white-black confrontation, but when it broken down further this amounted to an Afrikaner-African confrontation with a range of other ethnic players such as English-speaking whites, mixed-race “coloreds,” Indians, and some homeland parties as assorted bit players with their own interests. Most of the violence during the transition was between ANC-supporting Zulus and Inkatha-supporting Zulus.

    Maybe after F.W. de Klerk’s death his role will be properly appreciated and he will be remembered with a fraction of the adulation and worship now reserved for Mandela. I actually think that the comparison between David Trimble and De Klerk is much closer than that between any of the Sinn Fein leaders (or Hume) with Mandela.

  • sherdy

    Brian, – I agree with you on the usefulness of newspapers, but top-class journalists don’t just suddenly pop up out of a uni class.
    Years of learning through experience are required to develop well rounded journalists, but TV and radio stations are more interested in instant experts, and less and less newspapers can afford to train and hold onto the cream of the crop.
    Financial pressures on newspapers will ensure that we can expect less top quality journos in the future, and that will be unfortunate as we will all be the losers.

  • “Whatever your particular analysis”

    Brian, when I did my analysis about twenty years ago, I added socialism, both armchair and militant, to the unionist-nationalist mix.

    Desmond Greaves, in his armchair, perhaps should be considered as the father of civil rights activity to advance the nationalist cause with Cathal Goulding, IRA leader, as one of the key figures on the militant socialist side. Recent SF and SDLP support for Gerry McGough, as against support for his victim, has echoes of Greaves support for IRA folks during the earlier ’56-’62 campaign.

    Perhaps the 50th anniversary of Greaves ‘The Irish Question and the British people’ is a good time to take a wider view of the Northern Ireland question. Hardline unionists weren’t just responding to O’Neill’s perceived ecumenism, they were also reacting to the kind of socialism espoused by the likes of Sean Garland. This involved the sweeping away of the Belfast and Dublin administrations, by force if necessary.

    In the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that Dublin put the fate of its institutions ahead of that of the fate of folks in Northern Ireland. In a debate in Dail Éireann on 11 May 1966 we have Dr O’Connell talking about an RoI ‘baton-swinging democracy’ and these comments from Brian Lenihan, the Minister for Justice:

    The Deputy and certain other members of his Party appear to want to bring parliamentary democracy in Ireland into a state of anarchy in which anything might happen.

    London and Dublin continue their embrace of extremists in the hope that it will restrict their activities to Northern Ireland.

  • Ruarai

    “For serious media outlets to discuss him alongside Mother Teresa, Gandhi and Jesus of Nazareth is barking mad. He was Nelson Mandela.”

    What a bizarre sentence.

    First, if you’re keen to avoid history as myth making, what’s the basis for citing Jesus of Nazareth as someone on a pantheon above Mandela?

    Second, Mandela isn’t “alongside” Mother Theresa, his impact and legacy dwarfs her’s – and that’s a reflection on him more than her (before the MT debate kicks off).

    Third, Ghandi’s legacy saw half his country lost and a cold war type stand off between the two new states that remains very dangerous and bitter to this day. He’s hardly alongside Mandela either save for the people who “feel” that nonviolence is just a better approach always. (Dangerous and irresponsible people.)

    Fourth, “He was Nelson Mandela” is not an argument. It’s a patronizing and, ultimately, vacuous sentence filled with snark rather than substance. Not much “serious media” in that, is there?

    Fifth, by all means let’s have many perspectives but the ‘case against the case for Mandela’ is so weak that it doesn’t “balance” anything, it simply gets noticed as an outlier.

  • Seamuscamp


    Of course this isn’t a balanced piece – it’s by a journalist with an agenda.

  • Seamuscamp

    I’ve just seen an interview with Pik Botha ( Of course probably Mr Botha doesn’t know as much about either SA or Mandela as Brian Walker. Mr Mandela wasn’t perfect but perhaps he was less imperfect than many whose names spring to mind.

  • “I’ve just seen an interview with Pik Botha ( Of course probably Mr Botha doesn’t know as much about either SA or Mandela as Brian Walker.”


    Anything that Pik Botha says has to be taken with a grain of salt. He was South Africa’s foreign minister from 1977 to the early 1990s. Although he was a verlig in the National Party he was happy to let his fellow ministers demonize the ANC and accuse the opposition Progressive Federal Party of being in bed with the ANC, while he defended apartheid. Then in the early 1990s after he left his job as foreign minister he joined the ANC. In his very favorable biography published in 2010 his biographer wanted to have it both ways: Botha was a revolutionary working to undermine apartheid from within, but he wasn’t a disloyal Afrikaner like some of those in the PFP or in the United Democratic Front. By contrast the PFP and its successor Democratic Alliance have provided democratic opposition to both apartheid and ANC kleptocracy. Botha reminds me of some in the DUP today.

  • “Second, Mandela isn’t “alongside” Mother Theresa, his impact and legacy dwarfs her’s – and that’s a reflection on him more than her (before the MT debate kicks off).”


    Johnson was comparing the Western reaction to Mandela to their reaction to Gandhi and Mother Theresa, he doesn’t make any comparisons or discussion about their careers or legacies.

    What I thought was interesting was his claim that Mandela was indeed a member of the SACP before going into prison, something that had always been denied by Mandela and his biographers. He doesn’t give his source, but it is credible as it was common for many ANC figures to be SECRET SACP members. This was what made the SACP dangerous for conservatives in the West–not its overt alliance with the ANC.