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Acceptable in the 80s: Ireland once regarded Mugabe as a respected statesman and honoured guest

The Zimbabwe leader was viewed as a pariah by the West for decades. Things were different in 1983.

zanu-supporters-1980 Supporters of Mugabe in the build-up to the 1980 Rhodesian General Election. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

IT MAY SEEM unthinkable at this remove that Robert Mugabe was once welcomed to Ireland as an honoured guest and toasted at a state reception.  

For the last two decades the strongman, whose death was announced this morning, was increasingly viewed as a pariah in the West.

Anyone who lived through the years of headlines about rigged elections, farm seizures and human rights abuses may have trouble envisioning a Taoiseach happy to be seen raising a glass alongside the longtime Zanu-PF leader. 

Mugabe was viewed differently in the early 1980s. He had been hailed for his negotiating skills in the run-up to Zimbabwean independence, and after he took over as prime minister the tone of his early public statements reassured many of his opponents as he called for an end to the enmity between the races. 

In 1981 he was even nominated for the Nobel prize for his work on the peace settlement that ended the black nationalist guerilla war against white rule in Zimbabwe, but was passed over. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Brian Lenihan Snr paid tribute to Mugabe’s leadership in the Dáil in May 1981. Mugabe had survived at the helm, at that point, “for more than a year in the difficult initial stage of nationhood”.

Lenihan added: “All the indications are that Zimbabwe will survive and will be a nation with a real leadership role within the African community.”

Compared to that hopeful, positive statement, Mugabe’s sheen had already begun to wear off by the time he landed for his Irish visit just over two years later.

In 1982 he had deployed troops trained by North Korea to crush an insurgency in the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces. Thousands of civilians would be killed over the following years. 

Irish state papers from 1983 show officials here were agonising over how to handle talks with Mugabe, ahead of his visit.

There was particular deliberation over how to deal with the case of six white Zimbabwe Air Force officers detained over the sabotage of 13 planes the previous year, in a case which had made headlines internationally.  

The six were acquitted in court weeks before the scheduled Irish visit but they continued to be detained, with no retrial. Throughout the men’s trial it was claimed torture had been used to extract false confessions. 

taoiseach-and-fine-gael-leader-garret-fitzgerald-1986-pic-photocall-ireland Then-Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald Source: Rollingnews.ie

The question of whether then-Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald should raise the issue with his honoured guest was further complicated by reports received by the Department of Justice that as many as five of the airmen were entitled to Irish citizenship. The British Embassy had also been in touch on the issue. 

Notes from officials give an insight into the expected demeanor of the soon-to-arrive guest. Despite reports to the contrary on the international news wires, an official document noted that the Irish government “did not, repeat not, say we would raise this issue”. 

It would appear that UK is attempting to use Mugabe’s Irish visit to exert maximum leverage.
Apparently Mugabe responded ‘fiercely’ to British High Commissioner…
We are advising the Taoiseach to be very cautious in way in which he approaches subject…

In the end, Fitzgerald did raise the matter, but the Department of Foreign Affairs said the issue was “couched very carefully” so as not to upset Mugabe. 

Dinner plans 

Expenses receipts from the time show that a lunch for Mugabe hosted by the Fine Gael Taoiseach set the state back £1,500. Flowers came to £323, while a dinner in the leader’s honour had cost £6,600. 

The state papers, released under the thirty year rule in 2013, show there was considerable tension behind the scenes ahead of preparations for the state banquet. 

Fitzgerald had decided that he and his wife should choose the wine list – but he took too long, leading to delays in printing the menus. A further problem arose as the dinner began after 30 unexpected guests showed up and had to be accomodated. 

On a related note, it’s clear the dietary requirements of Mugabe and his wife, Sally, were an important consideration for officials. The couple had very specific requests about everything from cakes and breakfast cereals to jam and non-alcoholic beverages: fruit juice was okay, Ribena was out.   

Elsewhere the 1983 papers show that, compared to previous visits by overseas leaders, security had to be heightened significantly ahead of Mugabe’s arrival. 

Arrangements “are very much greater” than previous such occasions, one document noted – adding that many threats had been made against Mugabe both “inside and outside  Zimbabwe” due to his policies and leadership.

The document adds:

The implications of any ‘unfortunate event’ for Ireland’s international reputation do not, I think, need to be spelled out.

Mugabe jetted off for a meeting with US President Ronald Reagan immediately after his Irish sojourn. In what was regarded at the time as a bid to restore his reputation in the West it was announced before his US arrival that two of the detained airmen were to be deported from Zimbabwe. 

The New York Times reported that the two leaders met for a working lunch in the White House. “We didn’t always agree, but have all gained much from hearing your views, Mr Prime Minister,” Reagan told him after a meeting lasting around 90 minutes. Mugabe said that in spite of areas of difference “generally we have looked at issues through the same glasses, one might say”. 

Back home in Zimbabwe in the years that followed Mugabe cemented his grip on power. In 1988, after a change to the country’s constitution, he became president – a role with vastly expanded powers. 

In the 1990s he was still being feted by governments in the West. He was even knighted by the Queen during a 1994 state visit to London. “Through your personal commitment to economic reform… your economy seems to be well on the way to recovery and sustainable growth,” the monarch told him at a state reception. 

mugabe-obit Mugabe is hosted by Bill Clinton in the White House in 1995. Source: AP/PA Images

Three years later, he was hosted again in Ireland for a two-day visit – holding talks with President Mary Robinson at the Áras and joining Taoiseach John Bruton and invited guests for lunch at Iveagh House. 

Speaking to The Irish Times, he told of his long-standing Irish links and mentioned a priest who had been his school principal. The priest, he said, had run a strict regime and was known for striking students with a flexible rod. 

“That is what made us, Irish discipline,” Mugabe told the paper.

The list of guests at the lunch shows he was still held in high esteem within the highest echelons of Irish society. Sitting down to dine with Mugabe were former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald, senior academics from Trinity and UCD, the Garda Commissioner, the Army Chief of Staff, current ministers and the chairman and editor of the Irish Times.

The decline 

Mugabe’s reputation went off a cliff in the years that followed – beginning at the turn of the millenium when his supporters violently took over white farms in land reforms that were widely condemned.

Mugabe slammed Tony Blair – who had been outspoken in his criticism of the farm raids – as a liar and an “arrogant little fellow”. Ramping up his inflammatory rhetoric on western leaders he called then-US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice “that girl born out of the slave ancestry” echoing “her master’s voice”.

Tension between Mugabe and the West escalated in 2002 when the veteran leader kicked out European Union election observers ahead of a presidential vote, which was marred by violence and condemned by the US as “fundamentally flawed”.

The EU and the US imposed sanctions – including travel bans on Mugabe and his henchmen – for violence, electoral fraud and undermining democracy (some sanctions were later eased, after something of a rapprochement was detected by observers during Mugabe’s final few years in power).  

Zimbabwe’s economy had entered a downwards spiral after the land invasions. Mugabe consistently blamed those Western sanctions for the economic collapse, even though they were targeted at him and his inner circle personally, not at the economy. 

zimbabwe-community-protest-dublin Zimbabweans living in Dublin march to demand an end to the humanitarian crisis gripping the southern African state, in 2008. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Zimbabwe suffered the nadir of its economic implosion in 2008 when hyperinflation reached 500 billion per cent and millions fled the country. 

Mugabe lost that year’s presidential election but won the run-off after his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, withdrew citing nationwide attacks against his supporters.

In Ireland, as elsewhere in the international community, Mugabe’s reputation was on the floor. 

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin told the Seanad he wished to place on the record of the House “our shared and utter condemnation of that situation and our rejection of the sham re-election of Robert Mugabe after a campaign of violence and other gross abuses that made free and fair elections impossible and forced the withdrawal of Morgan Tsvangirai from the race”. 

Martin went on to refer to the “reign of terror” being perpetuated by Mugabe, who he said had displayed a “callousness and disregard for human suffering”. 

The White House lunches, carefully-choreographed state dinners in Dublin and London and the kind words from the Queen were now firmly, permanently, consigned to the past.

- Includes reporting from - © AFP 2019

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Daragh Brophy

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