South Africa, World

Op-Ed: Martin McGuinness and the comparative struggles of Northern Ireland and South Africa

By Wilmot James 22 March 2017

The Northern Irish learnt a great deal from us. It is time we learnt from them. By WILMOT JAMES.

Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness – who died this week – visited South Africa in 1994 (and probably later). By the nature of Northern Irish politics, he and a colleague whose name I cannot remember was one of two visits organised separately – the other delegation drawn from the Ulster Unionist Party, Social Democratic Liberal Party, Democratic Unionist Party and the Alliance – by the Council of Europe and the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa). Nelson Mandela was once annoyed that he had to give the same speech twice because Northern Irish political leaders refused to be and be seen to be in one room. 

McGuinness, a cautious but strategic man, took many of the key lessons he learnt from his South African visit into the peace negotiations that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement. Specifically, he appreciated the importance of taking the pulse of one’s constituency every step along the path of negotiations and yet lead acceptable compromises that broke the mould and took one’s constituencies beyond their comfort zone.

The South African art of arranging and structuring meetings technically to get the best political results was also an eye-opener.

Reflecting on South African lessons learnt, the political scientist Paul Arthur wrote (in an appropriately titled book Herding Cats, Washington DC, 1999) that in his view the Irish delegations drew three lessons from South Africa that played into the peace process in Northern Ireland:

First, they learnt about the role and great significance of introducing technical committees to work through and solve highly politicised problems. If left in the hands of politicians a solution which may not be available, as we discovered, in South Africa.

Second, the strange concept of “sufficient consensus” marked a shift from majoritarianism towards the idea of concurrent majorities. Former First Minister David Trimble argued that sufficient consensus, a judgement about the margin of legitimacy in the absence of universal consensus, was an important factor in bringing the UUP to the negotiation table.

The third lesson learnt was the danger of being left out. This followed meetings the Irish delegation had with the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the now defunct Conservative Party. Both these entities stayed out of the negotiations and lost influence. It was better to be on the inside changing things than to be impotent outsiders.

There was a fourth lesson, neatly summarised in Lesson Drawing from Negotiated Transitions in Northern Ireland and South Africa (2000, American Political Science Association) that, if the political will was there to achieve peace, “a negotiated settlement and negotiated solution (can) resolve seemingly insurmountable conflicts”. The role of “political will” (“dogged determination” is a better phrase) was key to concluding the Good Friday Agreement. The absence of dogged determination in the case of Israel and Palestine probably explains why no negotiation process with traction and promise ever arose there.

There was more. John Alderdice of the Alliance Party claimed that the South African “lessons learnt influenced my party to publish proposals for changes in police accountability in Northern Ireland”. Sinn Fein’s National Chairman Tom Hartley said that they had learnt from the South African experience “imaginative ways of co-operation, compromise and the significance of personal contact and trust”, the latter of great importance in managing the risk of breakdown and collapse.

The most formidable lesson came from Nelson Mandela himself. He sued for peace partly because he had to, he said. Njabulo Ndebele once described (in South Africa’s Nobel Laureates, 2005, Cape Town) how, in a meeting with defence force generals, Mandela said that while they (the generals) could easily defeat the ANC on the battlefield, they did not have the numbers, legitimacy and world’s support on their side, leaving both sides in a state of mutual dependency, the one with force but no legitimacy, the other with legitimacy but no force.

But Mandela also sued for peace because he did not want to see South Africa’s historical assets destroyed, as they were the foundations of building the new society. What was the point of fighting to the bitter end if all that was left was the rubble of war, he said? Negotiating for peace and making reasonable compromises within a constitutional democracy was a far better choice than pursuing a “come what may” pure revolution, because it preserved the very assets we needed to bring prosperity, justice and fairness.

This may be what Helen Zille meant in her intemperate tweet. But she showed her slip by framing it in a way that Mandela never would, because she does not understand that apartheid and colonialism are not merely historical phenomena subject to factual analysis but a long arc of painful inter-generational personal experiences subject to moral discernment and reflection. They were unjust ways of ordering whole societies where those with rights had privileged access to the assets of property and education and those without had declining and pitiful orders of both. To talk therefore only of the assets (such as they may be – comparative studies of colonialism showed that the Portuguese raped the land, the French built monstrous boulevards and the British left narrow gauge railroads) without acknowledging their extraordinary deficits, among which unjust jurisprudence and not the rule of law was overwhelming, is blindly one-sided, ahistorical and provocative.

Photo: Fiachra McGuinness (C-L) and Emmet McGuinness (C-R) carry the coffin of their father Martin McGuinness through the streets the Bogside area of Derry, Northern Ireland, 21 March 2017. Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s former deputy first minister, has died aged 66. It is understood he had been suffering from a rare heart condition. The former IRA leader turned peacemaker worked at the heart of the power-sharing government following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. He became deputy first minister in 2007, standing alongside Democratic Unionist Party leaders Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster. EPA/PAUL MCERLANE

McGuinness, like many Irish Republicans, also saw the British in Ireland as colonialists. British Army divisions made up an occupation force. The Irish experienced them as oppressors. But the political choice at the end the day was to seek a political settlement out of the quagmire of war in order to preserve what Northern Ireland had and build on these for future generations. It is the wisdom of someone steeled in struggle that we should heed in South Africa today.

The Northern Irish learnt a great deal from us. It is time we learnt from them. Though their legacies remain, colonialism and apartheid have given way to governments we choose. They are in charge now, on national, provincial and local levels. They must use their power and budgets to place real assets – property and education – in people’s hands within the democratic rules of fairness and justice in a world of ordered liberty. DM

Dr Wilmot James, DA MP, is the former Executive Director of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa).

Main photo: Martin McGuinness, deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, arrives to a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee at number 10 Downing street in London, Britain, 24 October 2016 (reissued 21 March 2017). EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA

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