With the death of Nelson Mandela I find myself remembering that quote from Machiavelli which was frequently mentioned during my A level History course.
"The end justifies the means."Nelson Mandela was a terrorist and freedom fighter, who whether he got blood on his own hands certainly shared responsibility for the violence in South Africa under Apartheid in the 1980s. And yet we mourn his death and celebrate his life as a hero, the saviour of a nation and ambassador for peace. This is a HUGE contradiction if you look at his life as a whole, and yet a perfectly valid response if you focus on the progress in South Africa he is largely responsible for and the unique way he united a divided country to bring it into the twenty first century as one nation.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary who was imprisoned and then became a politician and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.
He was undoubtedly a hugely positive force for good and yet in the 1960s he persuaded the ANC to set up a military wing to begin an "armed struggle" since strikes and passive resistance was not working. And yet he became on of the most respected, and probably the most loved of all world leaders in the late 20th century. For many "he personified the peaceful and rapid transition of power in South Africa that many had thought impossible, while his commitment to reconciliation was underlined by his own experience of personal sacrifice and forgiveness."
So does the process justify the end result? There have to be limits. How do you quantify appropriate means and measure them against desired - let alone actual - results. That's a philosophical can or worms, one I would love to immerse myself into because that was my "thing" as a student, but it detracts from the very real issue I want to raise. Is it acceptable to use immoral methods as long as you accomplish something good by using them?
If that were agreed ton be the case, that has huge ramifications for our view on Northern Ireland and the IRA. The unionists have plenty of historical justification for their struggle, and would argue their actions are not so very different from those in the ANC. And what would our perspective on Gerry Adams and Martin MacGuinness be if they had succeeded in uniting Ireland, and participated in a prosperous and peaceful transformation? If we agree that supporting the rebels in Syria is appropriate against an oppressive regime, to what ends should we go to support them - and why are we afraid to commit wholeheartedly?
Personally I believe it's never that straightforward. And we never have the luxury of hindsight - or foresight. You could argue that Mandela got lucky. He struck a deal with History and came out on top. Certainly good deeds should never be discounted completely by past actions and the achievements and legacy of this man deserve celebrating and remembering. But it certainly makes me realise how precious Democracy is, that our right to vote moves us on from armed struggles against oppression, and that sometimes when your back is against the wall and there is no other way out Machiavelli might have had a point.