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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

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A Gatherer of Minds

Padraig O'Malley of the McCormack Institute reconciles the irreconcilable.

By Margaret Bucholt

The plan was brilliant, the outcome anybody's guess.

But Padraig O'Malley is a visionary and a risk-taker. He knew there was more to gain than lose in sponsoring a 1997 meeting between 27 members of nine Northern Ireland political parties, and members of South Africa's African National Congress (ANC) and the former National Party government, so he forged ahead. The goal was to impart information about the negotiation process that had transformed South Africa from a repressive apartheid state into a democracy.

"I kept saying to myself, Northern Ireland should watch how the process works because they are going to need to know how to negotiate," recalls O'Malley, a tall thin man with a shock of graying hair who is a senior fellow at UMass Boston's John W. McCormack Institute of Public Affairs and editor of the institute's New England Journal of Public Policy.

After 18 months of political wrangling, the Northern Ireland factions finally agreed and arrived at Arniston, South Africa--in separate planes. For the three nerve-wracking days of the conference, they maintained stony silence and separate quarters: every "learning" session had to repeated to accommodate the strict segregation agreement, but the most important meetings took place beween individual participants from Northern Ireland and South African officials on a one on one basis in what O'Malley refers to as "confessionals." The rigid division was arranged beforehand to quell any potential brouhaha about the Unionists going abroad to negotiate with Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). When South African President Nelson Mandela arrived, O'Malley quipped, "Mr. President, would you mind tolerating an apartheid situation for three hours?"

Before Mandela met with the Unionists, O'Malley handed Cyril Ramaphosa, secretary general of the ANC, a slip of paper and Mandela's book, Long Walk to Freedom. Would Ramaphosa be kind enough to ask Mandela to inscribe the book for David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party? On the paper, O'Malley had written, "Dear David, You are one of the few people who can bring peace to your country. Rise to the occasion. Your friend, Nelson Mandela." Later, O'Malley handed the Mandela-inscribed book to Trimble. "I think it was the first time I had ever seen him smile," says O'Malley with a satisfied chuckle.

The outcome of the Indaba (the Zulu word for "gathering of the minds") was a series of historic events. Seven weeks after the conference, Sinn Fein declared a cease fire that paved the way for negotiations and ultimately the fragile Good Friday Agreement to share power, still in place today. A year later, Trimble and John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, were awarded the Nobel prize for peace. And most recently, in fall 2001, the IRA mustered the courage to destroy its weapons to further the cause of peace. That stunning announcement came two weeks after Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein once again visited former president Mandela in South Africa.

"It is impossible to overstate the level on which Padraig O'Malley operates and the impact he's had in this centuries-old, intractable conflict," says Political Science Professor Edmund Beard, director of the McCormack Institute. "He is playing with the most volatile actors and seeing success."

Scholar, author, facilitator, and raconteur, O'Malley is an expert on democratic transitions and divided societies, as well as a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker. A respected international lecturer and op-ed contributor to the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and USA Today, to name a few, he has written four books on Ireland and Northern Ireland, including The Ucivil Wars, Northern Ireland: Questions of Nuance, and Biting at the Grave : The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair, which was selected as one of six best nonfiction books in 1990 by the New York Times Book Review. He has also edited Uneven Paths: Advancing Democracy in South Africa, Southern Africa: The People'sVoices is the au and the AIDs of magazine articles and occasional papers for the McCormack Institute.

For years, O'Malley studied the parallels between the two countries, divided societies wrestling with questions of tradition, culture, and identity. Beginning in 1989, he observed the South African negotiation process first-hand, conducting in-depth interviews with key negotiators Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer, minister of constitutional affairs for the National Party government.

In 1996, a year before the Indaba, O'Malley facilitated a public lecture by Ramaphosa and Meyer in Belfast on the South African experience. Three years earlier, he had spearheaded a successful plan to award UMass Boston honorary degrees to Ramaphosa and Meyer, for their courageous efforts to create a new democratic foundation for a multiracial government. They addressed commencement jointly, and the occasion turned out be momentous more ways than one.

"It came to a point where the ANC was saying 'We have to leave for the United States, and the date for the elections must be set before we go,'" says O'Malley, retelling the story Ramaphosa shared with him. "The night before they left, the date was set. That's our footnote in history," he adds proudly.

He has transcribed 1,800 hours of interviews with South African politicians and residents in his ongoing, decade-plus oral history project, which will be digitally mastered and reproduced for a set of CD-ROMs; the hard copy is to be archived at South Africa's Robben Island Museum. Initial project funding came from the Mott Foundation and George Soros's Open Society Institute, but more is needed to complete the project.

O'Malley counts Nobel laureates Mandela and Seamus Heaney, the poet and essayist, among his friends, and they speak glowingly of his convictions and expertise. "I write with unreserved admiration for the man himself, his vision and abilities, his commitments and achievements," says Heaney in a letter recommending the oral history project. According to Heaney, O'Malley's "assiduous work of recording the different perspectives and developing attitudes within South Africa during the ten-year period from 1989 to 1999 had earned [Nelson Mandela's] highest regard. What particularly impressed Mr. Mandela was O'Malley's determination to face the greatest challenge posed once upon a time by W.B. Yeats, namely 'to hold in a single thought reality and justice.'"

In the next eight years, the prolific O'Malley is slated to produce eight books, including Shades of Difference: Transition in South Africa 1989-1999, to be published by Penguin Putnam in 2004, and six additional volumes for Penguin, South Africa. O'Malley is also the official biographer of the late Congressman John Joseph Moakley. Joseph E. Corcoran, the chairman and CEO of Corcoran Jennison Companies and another admirer of O'Malley's, made one of the lead gifts for the John Joseph Moakley Distinguished Professorship for Peace and Reconciliation, established in 2001 at UMass Boston.

"He [O'Malley] doesn't spend a lot time blowing his own horn," Corcoran says. "He tries to define the issues so they can be resolved instead of suppressed. And he's not afraid to put the issues in front of the protagonists."

Conflict resolution is undoubtedly part of O'Malley's expertise. But he also brings to the table wit, humor, understanding, sensitivity--and, at times, frustration. Take the Indaba conference, where there were three of almost everything, for example a dining hall for the Unionists, a second for the Nationalists, and a third for group participation. The separate facilities also included drinking establishments. One afternoon, all the Unionists were keen on seeing a British rugby team play South Africa on television. But there was only one TV, and it was in the Sinn Fein bar, which the Unionists refused to enter.

"I was getting madder and madder at the intransigence of these people," he says. "The television developed into a big imbroglio, so I got to a point where I took an ax-like tool and smashed it. I said to them, 'That's the end of that issue.'"

Arranging separate meetings with the South African president had its advantages. O'Malley reports that Mandela told Sinn Fein that if the IRA didn't declare a cease fire, peace talks were out of the question. Then Mandela told the Unionists they had to de-couple the cease fire issue and the decommission of arms or there could be no negotiations.

Both Trimble, leader of the main Unionist party , and Martin McGuinness, chief negotiator for Sinn Fein have acknowledged that the Indaba was an eye-opener and influenced the whole way negotiations were conducted afterwards. "They kept in touch with the individual South Africans so they could ring them up for advice, and the South Africans reciprocated," says O'Malley. "The negotiations very much proceeded along the lines of the processes used by the South Africans. Negotiations are all about process. If you get the processes in place, the outcome will emerge."

Source: UMass Boston Vol 6, No1. Winter/Spring 2002

Margaret Bucholt is a freelance writer and editor, and a resident of Belmont, MA.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.