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.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London