South African hero Nelson Mandela was opposed to the IRA decommissioning its arms and felt Unionist leader David Trimble was weak in his dealings with the Provisionals.

The claims have been made by former Belfast Telegraph editor Ed Curran, who dined with Mandela in Dublin in 2000 as the decommissioning talks were at their height.

Curran met the South African President at a lunch hosted by media mogul Tony O’Reilly for his newspaper editors.

The former Belfast Telegraph editor recounts how Mandela became agitated when the late Sunday Independent editor asked him about the IRA talks.

In a piece for the Belfast Telegraph, Curran wrote, “As Mandela told his stories, his soft-spoken, forgiving nature shone through, to the extent that it was hard to fathom that he had also inspired and led a violent and brutal revolution in Africa. However, as the lunch wore on, the other face of Nelson Mandela emerged.

“In April 2000, the political row over the IRA’s unwillingness to decommission its weapons was dominating the political news during that visit to Dublin; so much so that, before Mandela came to lunch, he had met the Sinn Fein leadership.

“The late Aengus Fanning, editor of the Sunday Independent, another guest at lunch, asked ‘What advice, Mr Mandela, did you offer them.’

“Mandela did not answer the question directly, but instead embarked on a long explanation of the position in which he found himself in South Africa on the same issue.

“He outlined how he faced a wide spectrum of factions within the African National Congress, ranging from liberals, who said all guns should be handed over swiftly, to the mainstream, who felt they should be kept and that such a compromise could not be contemplated so soon.

“Fanning repeated the question more pointedly: ‘But what was your position, Mr Mandela, on decommissioning weapons? And what advice would you give Gerry Adams?’

“Mandela’s mood turned suddenly steely. He looked seriously and sternly at Fanning. ‘My position, my position... my position is that you don’t hand over your weapons until you get what you want...’

“The editors around the table were stopped in their tracks. Here was the other Mandela, unflinchingly gritty, never to be taken lightly, who commanded the respect of a huge revolutionary force inside and outside his prison cell.”

Curran then passed on Mandela’s views to the British government when he met Peter Mandelson at a function in Belfast later the same night.

“That evening, I traveled back to Belfast and to the Culloden Hotel, where the Belfast Telegraph Business Awards were taking place.

“I arrived late off the evening Enterprise train and took my seat apologetically beside the then Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson, who was anxious to know what Mandela had said about Northern Ireland.

“Mandelson was visibly shocked when I suggested Mandela did not share the unionists’, or British, view on IRA decommissioning and that he thought David Trimble needed to show more political confidence and courage, because he had so much support from London.

“Mandelson was clearly annoyed at the prospect of such an influential global figure as Nelson Mandela showing sympathy for Sinn Fein and the IRA’s position on decommissioning.

“Shortly afterwards, Mandela was invited to Downing Street for talks with Prime Minister Tony Blair. I doubt if Blair could have changed such forthright views on arms decommissioning as Nelson Mandela had expressed over that lunch in Dublin, but I would be very surprised if he didn’t try.