Wednesday 24 January 2018

Editorial: Lessons for us from Mandela

Palestinians light candles and hold placards bearing images of former South African President Nelson Mandela outside the Church of Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem
Palestinians light candles and hold placards bearing images of former South African President Nelson Mandela outside the Church of Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem

ONE of the great unsolved philosophical questions is whether a tree falling in the forest when no one is around to hear it makes a sound. It is, in truth, a conundrum that is not applicable to Nelson Mandela, for his life and death provided us with a narrative that was heard right across the world. Our shared experiences of colonialism, the struggle for freedom and the paradox of terrorism, which, as we know too well, can either liberate or enslave, mean the life and death of the last great moral icon of the 20th Century has a particular emotive and political significance for this State. Intriguingly, whatever about his political struggle, the emotional intuitiveness of Mandela may provide Irish politicians with their most critical lesson about the virtues they should try to cultivate. Fintan O'Toole's analysis, last week, of the South African Ghandi noted that "a legend is elevated, rather than diminished, when it becomes human". And in his own address to Leinster House in 1990, in a reprise of the warning by Yeats against the "fanatic heart", Mandela also warned that where hearts are "turned to stone" by oppression, the desire for that sort of vengeance where one emulates "the barbarity of the tyrant" can "transform us into savages".

Intriguingly, the outwardly different public realm of the Smithwick tribunal report provided us with a stark case study in the importance of choosing politicians with warm hearts. This, even by Irish standards, was the darkest of reports. In particular, its concerns about the propensity of the gardai to prize loyalty above honesty raised, yet again, the question as to whether, even in the tumultuous midst of our 'democratic revolution', anyone outside of the occasional retired judge can be trusted to defend the public realm. Judge Smithwick, it should be noted, clearly stated that the gardai are not uniquely open to criticism, for a culture of failing adequately to address suggestions of wrongdoing, either for reasons of political expediency or by virtue of misguided loyalty, "has been a feature of life in this State". Such casual amorality might even be said to be "the Irish disease", for we have seen it highlighted by the Morris tribunal, the McCracken tribunal, the Dirt Inquiry, the Moriarty tribunal and the endless series of reports and inquiries into the sexual abuse of Irish children.

Though the ethical heart may weep at the apparently limitless subversion of all attempts to create the virtuous Republic, the Smithwick report was the catalyst for a uniquely unedifying display of amorality courtesy of Mr Adams's chilly 'laissez faire' remark. Sinn Fein's naked emperor can try all he wants to dress in the new threads of a Mandela-style image. It is, however, a conceit too far for those such as Michael McDowell, who claim that armed republicanism was infused by the spirit of "Mugabe rather than Mandela".

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