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Mr Higgins said the death of the churchman aged 90 on Sunday would be felt in Ireland by those who campaigned against the regime in apartheid South Africa.
He made specific reference to the Dunnes Stores workers who striked in the mid-80s over the sale of South African products in Ireland.
Very sad to hear of the passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
A tireless campaigner for social justice & reconciliation, he was the conscience of South Africa and beyond.
His unshakeable faith in humanity brought people together in NI too, a vital part of our own peace process.
— Micheál Martin (@MichealMartinTD) December 26, 2021
The archbishop was an enthusiastic supporter of the peace process in Northern Ireland and visited the region several times.
Mr Higgin said: “It is with great sadness that people all over the world will have learned of the death today of Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
“With the passing of Desmond Tutu, the world has lost not only a great spiritual leader but a great advocate for an informed, sensitive and caring society, defined by compassion and kindness.
“Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a man of profound wisdom and as a character that emphasised hope and possibility.
“Drawing strength from his belief that forgiveness has the potential to free an individual from the confines of past hurt, his inspirational leadership was a source for what was life-changing, not only for South Africa, but for countless people throughout the world, giving a voice to those most in need.
“Archbishop Desmond Tutu will be forever remembered for his work in drawing global attention to the horrific inequalities of apartheid, a moral energy he communicated in those early statements issued in the most dangerous and difficult circumstances.
“That fullness was reflected in his continued emphasis on the power of love and compassion in post-apartheid South Africa.
“His death will be felt by all those in Ireland who made themselves part of the anti-apartheid movement.
“Those Dunnes Stores workers who took part in the strike against apartheid in the 1980s, and to whom he often referred. Indeed, many who will have valued Archbishop Tutu’s support for the strikes will in particular recall his meeting with striking workers Karen Gearon and Mary Manning, along with union official Brendan Archbold, at a stopover in London on his way to receiving the Nobel Prize in 1984.”
Mr Higgins said Tutu had used “love, empathy and forgiveness” to repeatedly renew the “joyful possibilities of our world”.
He added: “For all of this search and celebration of hope he was and remains a talismanic figure, a courageous practitioner of peaceful activism.
“He never held back or counted the cost. He leaves an extraordinary legacy in human rights activism of the best kind for South Africa and for the world.”
Taoiseach Micheal Martin also paid tribute.
“Very sad to hear of the passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu,” he tweeted.
“A tireless campaigner for social justice & reconciliation, he was the conscience of South Africa and beyond.
“His unshakeable faith in humanity brought people together in NI too, a vital part of our own peace process.”
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said: “I am saddened to learn of the passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His life was marked by a courageous determination to confront and oppose the injustice of apartheid in his beloved South Africa.
“He was a defender of human rights and a fearless and outspoken voice for the marginalised worldwide.
“A friend to Ireland, he strongly supported the Irish peace process and came to meet political leaders in 1998, and a number of times after the Good Friday Agreement was ratified.
“He will also be remembered for how in 1984 he invited the heroic Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strikers to meet with him in London on his way to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.”
In Northern Ireland, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the archbishop’s life served as an inspiration to people around the world.
“In the passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu the world has lost a true human rights hero and Ireland has lost a great friend,” he said.
The world has lost a courageous champion of justice and freedom. Desmond Tutu confronted the evil of apartheid in his beloved South Africa. He was a defender of human rights and a relentless,
outspoken voice for the marginalised worldwide. We will never see his likes again. pic.twitter.com/6h5L4pPdo5
— Mary Lou McDonald (@MaryLouMcDonald) December 26, 2021
“Archbishop Tutu’s tireless campaigning for an end to apartheid in his native South Africa and for basic rights to be extended to all the people there made him a household name across the globe.
“He used his platform to help those in need both at home and abroad and we all owe him a great debt of gratitude.
“Archbishop Tutu knew that the only foundation for reconciliation is truth. He sensitively did all he could to acknowledge the difficult journey his country had travelled and through his work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he worked to help heal the wounds inflicted on his people.
“He also became a familiar face in Ireland – not just through his work in South Africa but through his attempts to help in our own peace process in any way possible.
“I know his commitment to peace and justice served as an inspiration to many within the SDLP and he was held in the highest regard by his fellow Nobel laureate John Hume.”