The Last Visit

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0007a05e-642In June 2003, Nelson Mandela came to visit Ireland to attend the Special Olympics where he addressed the audience in Croke Park (above).

I knew that Madiba wasn’t difficult or demanding but the basics had to be in place such as security, transport and a comfortable hotel room. As was the norm , two of his security personnel arrived a few days beforehand to ensure everything was taken care of. We met with the irish police and were assured that all was well .

I double and triple-checked everything.

On the morning, I was at the VIP Lounge in Dublin Airport early with Madiba’s security. The lounge was filled with arrivals – including the Kennedy Shrivers.

Then the first crisis developed.

The Gardai motorbike riders informed us that they had been instructed to accompany the Shrivers and that there would be no escort or security for Madiba…I thought Madiba’s security detail were about to explode.

There had been an agreement with the Irish police which had been confirmed the previous evening, on the basis that there was not enough South African protection with him and that, under Irish law, his security personnel could not be armed.

I frantically made a few phone calls but was told that it was a direct instruction from someone senior, who felt that there was no threat to Madiba.

…the journey [into Dublin] took about 45 minutes . Not only did we not have a motorbike motorbike escort but the driver would not use the bus lanes since he did not have a taxi sign and did not want the embarrassment of being stopped with Madiba in the car.

…After getting Madiba settled I made numerous phone calls but got nowhere. Eventually I persuaded someone to get the Minister for Justice [Michael McDowell was minister at this time] to leave the parliamentary chamber to take a call from me.

I expressed my astonishment at the position and said: ‘Minister , with respect, if something does happen to Mandela I will not be the one who will have to explain to the world why the Irish government did not put adequate security in place for the most recognisable and loved man in the world,” I said firmly. There was silence on the other side.

A few minutes after the conversation ended I received a call to say that we would get one armed plain clothes detective for the duration of the visit.

…Weeks after the visit a formal apology from the department of Foreign Affairs was conveyed to me and passed on to Madiba.

I never quite understood what was behind the drama.

Melanie Verwoerd, South African ambassador to Ireland (2001-2005).

From When We Dance: A Memoir by Melanie Verwoerd (Liberties)

(This is a repost from a July item headlined The Nelson Riddle)

Pic: RTE