Analysis

Friday 1 August 2014

Bertie Ahern: 'His greatness was in his magnanimity and foresight'

Mandela lived for reconciliation and his story encapsulates the triumph of spirit and perseverance, writes Bertie Ahern

Bertie Ahern

Published 06/12/2013|01:00

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Bertie Ahern meets Nelson Mandela in Dublin in 2000

BILL Clinton tells a wonderful story about Nelson Mandela. Bill was fascinated by Mandela's gesture in asking his former jailers to attend his inauguration as president.

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Bill asked Mandela when he was imprisoned did he not resent his captors? Mandela told him that he had hated them, but one day, Mandela realised that his guards had taken everything from him except his heart and his mind. Mandela told Clinton that "those they could not take without my permission. I decided not to give them away".

Mandela's life story encapsulates the triumph of human spirit and perseverance. He will be remembered as one of the giants of 20th-century history.

I have said previously that Nelson Mandela was the most inspirational figure I ever met in my life in politics. The reason for this was that he lived and breathed reconciliation. He suffered massively for his beliefs and spent almost three decades imprisoned by a racist government, but this only served to strengthen his resolve to build peace.

I was privileged to meet Mandela on a number of occasions. He was a tough politician and a great leader with incredible energy, which he put at the disposal of all South Africans, irrespective of class, colour or creed.

Mandela visited Ireland in June 1990. I remember he received a rapturous reception. Charlie Haughey was never one to get too excited about meeting anyone, but he was genuinely thrilled to meet Mandela. In truth, we all were. Mandela was a global figure who was leading a crusade against inequality.

Mandela was central to South Africa's transformation. In the first election he was ever allowed to vote in, Mandela was elected president of South Africa in 1994. Mandela's essential greatness was in his magnanimity and his foresight in victory.

Having been denied their rights for so long, some people may have expected Mandela to form a government that would solely seek to vindicate the rights of the black community, but instead Mandela sought to move South Africa beyond racism.

He formed a national unity government, appointing people of different races to cabinet, and he asked FW de Klerk to serve as his vice-president.

I met De Klerk in November 1995 when I was leader of the opposition. He attended the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin Castle and I was struck by his contribution and his account of how, as vice-president in the new South Africa, he and Mandela were working in harmony for the betterment of all the people of South Africa. I remember thinking it would be great if we could make similar progress in Northern Ireland.

No two peace processes are ever the same and though it took well over a decade, when Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness began to work together in the Executive, we opened a new chapter in co-operation and mutual respect on this island. Mandela and De Klerk provided some of the inspiration.

In January 2000, I spent an extraordinary day in Robben Island, where Mandela had spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment.

Seeing that desolate place where he endured so much, convinced me that his lack of bitterness and his commitment to building peace are testament to his extraordinary qualities as an individual.

He was a truly historic figure and a brilliant man. A light has gone out in the world with his passing. Ar dheis De go raibh a ainm dhilis.

Bertie Ahern is a former Taoiseach

Irish Independent

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