Dublin dismissed Mandela city freedom honour plan

Politicians shot down plans to honour Nelson Mandela with the freedom of Dublin just five years before he was eventually awarded the accolade, classified files have revealed.

Politicians dismissed the idea of giving Nelson Mandela the freedom of Dublin in 1983. Picture: AP

Although the late South African leader was conferred a Freeman of Dublin in 1988 - the first capital city in the world to do so - councillors dismissed the idea during behind-the-scenes meetings in 1983.

Documents released into the National Archives under the 30-year rule showed then Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald ordered advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs after he became aware of the proposal.

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But while government advisers suggested any diplomatic risk in conferring the honour would be outweighed by a positive international reaction, political parties on Dublin City Council could not agree.


Asked for advice, Foreign Affairs officials told the Taoiseach that successive Irish governments had appealed for Mandela’s release and while it maintained contact with the ANC, it did not support its armed struggle.

“From the above it will be clear that the granting of the freedom of the city of Dublin to Nelson Mandela would not be in conflict with the government’s attitude to Mandela or with the Government’s general approach to the question of apartheid,” a memo stated.

“The granting of the freedom of the city would be well received by other African countries.

“It might be criticised by South Africa and those who would view as inappropriate the public honouring of an individual who had advocated physical force and whose name is linked to a movement now engaged in a low level guerilla war.

“Nonetheless, this risk is in our view outweighed by Mandela’s stature as a leader of black South Africa, as a focus in the struggle against apartheid, and as an international figure.”

In the event, Dublin’s then Lord Mayor Daniel Browne wrote to Kadar Asmal, chairman of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, on 21 January 1983, to say there was no consensus on the plan.

Mr Browne said the idea was considered separately by each of the political groupings on the capital’s local authority.

“As I think I explained to you, the tradition is that the Freedom is only conferred where there is unanimous agreement,” the Labour mayor wrote.

“It has not been possible to secure this.”


Mr Browne said the accolade was not considered the “most appropriate” way to recognise Mr Mandela, adding that the honour had only been conferred on six occasions in the previous 30 years.

These included Pope John Paul II and John F Kennedy.

In fact, a number of actors and theatrical figures had also been conferred with the freedom of the city over the same period.

Mr Browne wrote that the political parties instead suggested that a sculpture by Elizabeth Frink, called Prisoner of Conscience, be erected in a park as a recognition of “the struggles of all prisoners of conscience”.

This was later unveiled in Merrion Square.

The newly released documents do not reveal why agreement could be not be made on conferring the freedom of the city, or which councillors were for or against the idea.

But a letter from the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement to Mr FitzGerald on his election as Taoiseach suggests that both the Labour Party and the Workers Party supported the plan.

The letter asked Mr FitzGerald to lend his support through the Fine Gael group on the council, and to “convey your wishes” to party colleague Joe Doyle, a TD and representative on Dublin City Council.

Other notable members of the council at the time included Bertie Ahern, Tony Gregory, Gay Mitchell, Ben Briscoe, Mary Robinson, Michael Keating, Alice Glenn, Michael Barrett and Fergus O’Brien.

Mr Asmal, who headed up the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement at the time and who was spearheading the plan, went on to become an ANC cabinet minister in the South African government.

In his memoirs, the former Trinity College Dublin law professor, who died in 2011, wrote that the IRA helped carry out a major bomb attack against the South African apartheid government.

He also claimed Gerry Adams was approached to provide IRA men to train ANC members in Ireland.