Political and church leaders in Northern Ireland have paid tribute to former South African president Nelson Mandela, who died this week after a long illness.
Mr Mandela was South Africa’s first black president and was a key leader in the country’s campaign against apartheid.
Speaking in a live interview on BBC Radio 5 Live, former Prime Minister Tony Blair said Mr Mandela had always followed events in Northern Ireland very closely.
On Friday First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness both expressed sadness at his death.
The First Minister said: “It is with deep sorrow that I heard of the death of Nelson Mandela and I offer my condolences to his entire family circle at this time.”
He added: “I met Nelson Mandela on two occasions and was struck by his considerable humility and charisma. He did not see himself in terms of celebrity, yet barely anyone throughout the world would not recognise his name and that is in no small part because of his unique ability to connect personally with people.
“Nelson Mandela carried out his role with a real talent to draw people and whole communities together. South Africa and the rest of the world had a tremendous respect for him.
“When I asked how he dealt with opposition and the business of negotiation he commented that real negotiation is not with political opponents, rather with your own community, and while they may feel you are stepping ahead of them, it is important to convince them to make the journey – a message so pertinent to our own peace process.”
Mr McGuinness said: “I offer my heartfelt sympathies to his family at this difficult time. I was honoured to meet Nelson Mandela the last time he was in Dublin and there is no doubt he was truly one of the greatest leaders of our lifetime.
“Through his humility, strong negotiation skills and desire for justice, he earned respect as an ambassador for peace, human rights and democracy across the globe. It was appropriate in 1993 this was recognised when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with former South African President FW De Klerk.
“He will be remembered for demonstrating what is possible when people are committed to peace and reconciliation in areas of conflict.
“Nelson Mandela has left an indelible mark not only in South Africa but across the world. In 1997, at a critical stage of our peace process, I was honoured to lead, at the invitation of President Mandela, a delegation to South Africa for significant discussion with South African peace negotiators, which also included all parties from the North.
“President Mandela’s interest in the success of the peace process was epitomised by the valuable contributions made by amongst others Cyril Ramaphosa, his chief negotiator and the now deputy president of the African National Congress, who was a constant source of support to us throughout. Nelson Mandela was a true friend to Ireland.”
Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt said: “When he became president, his leadership, tolerance and generosity of spirit led South Africa through a period of potential turmoil. As president his respect for others and his humanity was an inspiration to all and helped smooth South Africa’s transition to democracy.
“He was an iconic figure and a symbol of hope for many people throughout the world.
“We must also remember the Mandela family who have lost a much loved father and grandfather.”
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said: “While the death of Nelson Mandela wasn’t entirely unexpected, it nevertheless has caused a great degree of sadness. The world has lost a great champion for the rights of the oppressed, an advocate for those without a voice, a man who influenced change far beyond the confines which others attempted to impose on him.”
Alliance leader David Ford said: “Nelson Mandela was one of the greatest leaders of the past century. He will be sorely missed by millions, not just in South Africa, but right across the world. He was one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century.”
Presbyterian Moderator Dr Rob Craig said the world has lost “one of the great statesmen of recent times”.
He added: “There is much to learn from the life of Nelson Mandela, particularly in the way he did not repeat the mistakes of the successive governments that tried to silence him and suppress his ideals.
“Rather, he embraced all the people of South Africa allowing their views and opinions to be heard.”
The Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd Dr Richard Clarke, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, said Mr Mandela’s death marks the end of an era.
“His powerful faith in a better future for all sustained his country through the birth pangs of creating a new and finer society,” he said.