Martti Ahtisaari obituary: Former Finnish president who played a crucial role in peace process

‘Martti was always a voice of hope, one that proved that war is not the solution to conflicts,’ said President Michael D Higgins

Born: June 23rd 1937

Died: October 16th 2023

Gerry Adams, in paying tribute to the former Finnish president, peacemaker, international mediator and Nobel Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, who has died aged 86, noted how he played a “crucial role in advancing the peace process”.

That role included a few jolting journeys through hidden Ireland at the behest of Adams to independently test whether the IRA really was prepared to go out of business. The former Sinn Féin president and the late Martin McGuinness secretly met Ahtisaari and the leading African National Congress member and current president of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa in London in early 2000 to enlist their aid in trying to break the political logjam over IRA decommissioning.


The Belfast Agreement had been struck two years earlier, but the absence of IRA disarmament was hampering the harmonious functioning of the Northern Executive and Assembly and the other institutions of the 1998 accord. Both men agreed to the arrangement, and while Ahtisaari was an experienced politician and negotiator, he hadn’t quite bargained for the clandestine treks this would entail through the bumpy byways of Ireland.

Over 2000 and 2001, Ahtisaari and Ramaphosa were ferried on three occasions from IRA safe houses to two arms dumps by various means of travel including vans, cars and even the wooden trailer of a farm tractor – their job to establish that weapons were out of use.

In The Mediator, Ahtisaari’s biography written by Katri Merikallio and Tapani Ruokanen, the tension around the operations was captured. Ahtisaari was a man of rather cold and serious demeanour, but on this trepidatious mission he demonstrated his ability to break the ice with his IRA escorts. He described arriving at “the front of a building resembling a potato cellar” where “lying at the foot of some stairs, instead of potatoes, there was a considerable number of rifles and machine guns”.

And he continued, “When the weapons had been bundled up and we climbed up out of the dark cellar, I said to Cyril: ‘There must be a better way to earn one’s living.’ The tension ebbed and everyone burst out laughing.”

Ahtisaari and Ramaphosa’s work did not resolve the decommissioning impasse – it wasn’t until 2005 that all or most IRA weapons finally were put away – but it created movement on a poisonous issue and assisted in improving the political landscape in Northern Ireland at that fraught period.

Ahtisaari traced his dedication to peace and reconciliation to his own childhood during World War II when his family had to flee before the advances of the Soviet Red Army

That experience was a significant item on Ahtisaari’s curriculum vitae, but just one of many peace projects that he engaged in around the world in places such as Namibia, Kosovo and Indonesia, work that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008.

Born in Viipuri in Finland in 1937, now Vyborg and part of Russia, he traced his dedication to peace and reconciliation to his own childhood during World War II when his family had to flee before the advances of the Soviet Red Army.

Helping Namibia achieve independence from the apartheid-ruled South African government in 1990 took up a considerable period of his career. During this time he earned the displeasure of the white South African administration with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, later hearing of a plan that he should not be killed but should receive a “good hiding” from special undercover operatives. On independence, he was appointed an honorary Namibian citizen and it was also reported that many Namibians named their children in his honour. He took over as head of Finland’s foreign ministry in 1991, and became chairman of an international panel attempting to bring peace to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

He served as Finnish president from 1994-2000, the first president in Finland to be elected by direct popular vote. It was an election that embroiled him in controversy with opponents claiming he had a drink problem and that he had taken a double salary from the UN and from the Finnish foreign ministry for his mediation work in Bosnia. He strongly rejected both charges.

A firm supporter of the European Union, he oversaw Finland joining the EU in 1995. He was also an advocate for Finland joining Nato. In 1997, he was instrumental in Finland hosting a summit meeting between Russian president Boris Yeltsin and US president Bill Clinton to address Nato’s enlargement to the Baltic states. Finland joined Nato earlier this year.

In 2000, Ahtisaari founded the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI) to deal with issues of conflict resolution around the world, which acted as mediator in the peace talks between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement, an agreement that ended nearly three decades of violence.

Between 2005 and 2008, as the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy, he was involved in negotiations on the status of Kosovo, which in 2008 declared its independence from Serbia. Ahtisaari was also a member of the international peace and human rights advocacy group known as The Elders, which was inspired by Nelson Mandela, and is currently chaired by former Irish president Mary Robinson.

President Michael D Higgins said that, in “Ireland we will remain in Martti’s debt for the important role which he played as a weapons inspector . . . Martti was always a voice of hope, one that proved that war is not the solution to conflicts.”

Martti Ahtisaari is survived by his wife Eeva and son Marko.