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6 June 1997 Edition

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Sinn Féin impressed by South African experience

By Brian Campbell

Martin McGuinness has described last weekend's conflict resolution conference in South Africa as ``one of the most memorable experiences of my life''. He told An Phoblacht that ``none of the parties who took part will be unaffected by it''.

The conference was organised by US academic Professor Padraig O'Malley and hosted by South Africa's Ministry of Constitutional Development. Its aim was to see if there were any lessons in South Africa's conflict resolution for parties from the Six Counties.

Nine party delegations attended, including Ulster Unionists (headed by David Trimble), DUP (Peter Robinson), SDLP (Mark Durkan) as well as the UDP, PUP, Alliance, Women's Coalition and Labour. The Sinn Féin delegation included Martin McGuinness, Gerry Kelly, Rita O'Hare and Siobhan O'Hanlon.

The Unionist delegations insisted on being kept separate from Sinn Féin at all times - an ironic demand in the land that invented apartheid. Their wishes were respected and there were separate travelling, accommodation and conference arrangements provided.

``What most impressed me,'' said Martin McGuinness, ``was how the conference was organised. There was an absolute commitment by the South African government to share their experiences. They invited people who were once their bitter enemies - like Inkatha and the old South African Army generals - and it was clear that there was a warmth between them even after all they had been through.''

The conference included a number of in-depth workshops in which the Irish participants were taken through aspects of how the conflict was resolved and questioned the South Africans. Three South African government ministers attended as well as conference hosts Roelf Meyer and Cyril Ramaphosa, the two men who played a leading role in negotiating the settlement which ended the conflcit in South Africa. Nelson Mandela attended one workshop and spoke, without notes, for twenty five minutes. ``It was a highlight of the weekend,'' said McGuinness. ``He stressed that you don't negotiate with your friends. You negotiate with your enemies.''

Rita O'Hare said that one important lesson which everyone will have taken from the conference is that ``it doesn't mean you have given up your political views when you sit down and negotiate with your political opponents. That was clear from the weekend. We met people who five years ago were bitter enemies and they talked together about how they got negotiations started and came through them. The fact that everyone there heard that message is very important. It will have implications, maybe not immediately but further down the line.''

One important point that was stressed was that an inclusive process was absolutely crucial to a successful outcome. ``When I came back to Ireland,'' said Martin McGuinness, ``I heard that John Bruton and the British government were thinking of stopping contact with Sinn Féin. I would say to them: for many people Nelson Mandela is the man of the century and if he has no problem meeting with Sinn Féin, then John Bruton and the British government should have no problem meeting with Sinn Féin.''
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An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland
 

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