IN JUNE 2003, I wrote a letter to Nelson Mandela asking for his help. At the time I was twenty five years old and like so many others, concerned about the recent invasion of Iraq.
I wanted Mandela to raise awareness of Ireland’s involvement in what many people believed was an illegal and immoral war. I wanted him to give a message to our leaders, telling them that people everywhere wanted peace, not war.
I figured that if I sent my letter by registered post to him at the university and marked it as private, then someone would be obliged to give it to him. Naive perhaps, but I had seen how 100,000 marchers in Dublin didn’t seem to influence our government and thought it was worth a go.
The next day I listened to Mandela’s speech online. I was a young man waiting for a leader to represent my voice, and the voices of millions like me. I was looking for hope, and I wasn’t disappointed.
In his speech that day Mandela talked about the fact that there had been no world war since 1945 because of the United Nations and that “any organisation, any country, any leader, that now decides to sideline the United Nations – that country and it’s leader are a danger to the world”.
“And they do so because you are keeping quiet,” Mr Mandela continued, after prolonged applause from the audience. “You are afraid of this country and its leader”he said. Mr Mandela said he could “not keep quiet” and that “all of us must have the courage to stand up and condemn what is wrong, and I am grateful that you have allowed an old man, who is more than 100 years old, to come and address you” he said on what ended up being his last visit to Ireland.
I had no idea whether Mr Mandela received my letter, and he didn’t refer specifically to Shannon airport and Ireland’s role in the war, but you could read between the lines. Finally, someone was speaking truth to power, saying what our leaders wouldn’t or couldn’t. Mandela was standing up to the spin doctors and the war mongers. He was using his platform to fearlessly advance the freedom of all people, not just his own.
It was a speech that gave me hope and inspiration, a unique moment of light in an Ireland that was often blinkered by the economic boom. Mandela’s speech burst through my frustration and growing cynicism and caused me to commit to making a difference in the world in whatever way I could.
Just a few months later I joined with friends and set up the SpunOut.ie youth organisation. Ten years on, and although I’m no longer involved, SpunOut.ie remains an important platform for young people at a time when many are struggling to remain hopeful.
It was the example of people like Nelson Mandela that helped inspire me during the inevitable challenges of setting up an organisation and in the work I’ve gone on to do. At that impressionable time in my life Mandela was a beacon, a teacher, and a guide to what is possible.
Young people today need similar inspiration. They need leadership and vision beyond the spin and rhetoric that promises them things are changing. They are hungry for inspiration and ideas that redefine conventional politics and cut through a culture dominated byadvertising and fear.
They want their values to be represented in public life and to be given encouragement and opportunities to be involved in shaping the world around them.
Mandela is being celebrated by billions around the world not just because of his remarkable feats in South Africa, but because of what he represents for humanity. He is a symbol for the great human leap forward, of the phenomenal power of the human spirit to triumph over flaws, adversity and injustice.
At a time when the world is crying out for courageous leadership, when injustice and suffering is everywhere, Mandela has left us a timely challenge and a call to action. It is up to us to be our own Mandela, to rise up and keep the flame of freedom alive.
“Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that generation. Let your greatness blossom”.