Making Peaceby George Mitchell
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Fifteen minutes before five o'clock on Good Friday, 1998, Senator George Mitchell was informed that his long and difficult quest for an Irish peace accord had succeeded--the Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland, and the governments of the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, would sign the agreement. Now Mitchell, who served as independent chairman of the peace talks for the length of the process, tells us the inside story of the grueling road to this momentous accord.
For more than two years, Mitchell, who was Senate majority leader under Presidents Bush and Clinton, labored to bring together parties whose mutual hostility--after decades of violence and mistrust--seemed insurmountable: Sinn Fein, represented by Gerry Adams; the Catholic moderates, led by John Hume; the majority Protestant party, headed by David Trimble; Ian Paisley's hard-line unionists; and, not least, the governments of the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, headed by Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair.
The world watched as the tense and dramatic process unfolded, sometimes teetering on the brink of failure. Here, for the first time, we are given a behind-the-scenes view of the principal players--the personalities who shaped the process--and of the contentious, at times vitriolic, proceedings. We learn how, as the deadline approached, extremist violence and factional intransigence almost drove the talks to collapse. And we witness the intensity of the final negotiating session, the interventions of Ahern and Blair, the late-night phone calls from President Clinton, a last-ditch attempt at disruption by Paisley, and ultimately an agreement that, despite subsequent inflammatory acts aimed at destroying it, has set Northern Ireland's future on track toward a more lasting peace.
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Although I didn't realize it at the time, my journey to Northern Ireland began in December 1982, when I decided that I would limit the time of my service in the United States Senate. I had been appointed to the Senate in May 1980 to complete the unexpired term of Edmund Muskie, who resigned to become secretary of state. His Senate term continued through 1982, giving me two and a half years to demonstrate to the people of Maine that I deserved election in my own right to a full six-year term. As it turned out, I needed every bit of that time.
Appointed senators rarely win election on their own, and it looked as though I would continue that tradition. Throughout 1980 and 1981, Maine's two members of the House of Representatives, both Republicans, jockeyed for position in what was widely perceived as the sure thing of defeating me. In May 1981 one of them, David Emery, released a public opinion poll which showed him trouncing me by 61 percent to 25 percent--a thirty-six-point spread. Not to be outdone, the other House member, Olympia Snowe, announced a poll which had her ahead of me by thirty-three points. Kenneth Curtis, a former governor, then stated that he was considering running against me in the Democratic primary. He cited yet another poll, showing him leading by twenty-two points.
Publication of the polls produced the intended and predictable result: an avalanche of negative news reports and a growing uneasiness among Democrats about the viability of my candidacy. I had been working hard for a year, but the only response to my political problems I could devise was to work even harder.
I had been traveling around the state, speaking at service clubs and high schools and going to bean suppers. But these were random appearances, usually in response to invitations I received. I now began a systematic effort to visit every service club, high school, hospital, grange hall, senior citizens center, and manufacturing facility in the state. Instead of eight to ten public events each weekend I attended twelve to fifteen. I also increased the time I devoted to researching and studying each issue on which the Senate voted.
It was an extremely difficult year. I was usually tired, often discouraged, always anxious. But I never felt that my situation was hopeless; I never lost faith in myself or my principles.
Over time, my prospects improved. Curtis decided, for health reasons, not to seek the nomination. Snowe deferred to Emery and withdrew from consideration. It was then Emery's bad luck that the incumbent Republican administration, and those candidates associated with it, were held responsible for the worsening economy. Late in the campaign the tide turned decisively in my favor. In the election I received 61 percent of the votes.
Among the lessons I learned from this experience were the importance of having a plan and sticking to it while retaining the flexibility to make adjustments as circumstances change; the necessity of total commitment; and the need for patience and perseverance to overcome the inevitable setbacks. These are not brilliant insights, but rather the kind of common sense that is often overwhelmed by panic at the first sign of adversity.
Shortly after the election I began to think seriously about my future in the Senate. I had seen many senators become totally consumed by the institution. I now realized that I had become one of them. I worked seven days a week, twelve to fourteen hours a day. My marriage suffered, my other interests atrophied. Since I had just received a sizeable majority of the vote after serving as an appointed senator for less than a full term, I was confident that with a full term I could establish myself so solidly that I could win re-election in the future. (My analysis was correct. In 1988 I received 81 percent of the vote, the highest percentage ever achieved by a candidate in a contested statewide election in Maine history.) But the more I thought about it, the more deeply I felt that I should not try to make the Senate a lifetime career. On Christmas Day, 1982, I decided to term-limit myself. It was a private decision. I kept it to myself for eleven years.
Just after Christmas in 1993, I decided that the time had come to leave the Senate. In late February 1994 I notified my staff and asked them to make preparations for a public announcement. March 5 was chosen as the date, Portland as the place.
On the morning of March 4, I videotaped a five-minute statement to be broadcast throughout Maine the next day. Although I ordinarily could do tapes on the first try, I needed three takes for this one. I found, to my surprise, that it was hard to say the words now, when it really counted, as opposed to when I had been just thinking about it. The final tape was barely acceptable, definitely not one of my best efforts.
That evening I went to the White House. By coincidence I had been invited to attend a small dinner in the First Family's living quarters, and I sat next to President Clinton. Near the end of the dinner I asked if I could speak to him privately for a few minutes. He suggested I join him in his study, where we talked for two and a half hours. The president was obviously surprised when I told him of my plans. He first tried to get me to change my mind. During the conversation he asked me, "If in the future something comes up where I think you can be of assistance, would you be willing to help? Or are you just turned off of politics?" I told him that I was not turned off, that I loved public service, and that I would be happy to help on anything he thought was important. He didn't mention Northern Ireland, and it never crossed my mind. But on that evening, without realizing it, I took the second step on my journey to Northern Ireland.
On November 1 President Clinton issued a statement on Northern Ireland. It was part of a continuing process under which, for the first time, the problems there were given a high priority by an American administration. In the statement he announced his intention to sponsor a White House Conference on Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland. It was to be part of a strategy to support the effort to bring peace to that troubled land by encouraging economic growth and job creation.
In early December I was asked by a member of the White House staff if I would undertake a diplomatic mission on behalf of the president. When I asked what it would involve, he said it would require all my time. I told him that wasn't possible. I was to be married on December 10 and was planning to return to private life. I was interested in doing something involving public policy, but I wasn't interested in anything that was a full-time job.
Later, I was shown the president's November 1 statement on Northern Ireland and was asked if I had any interest in getting involved there. Although I had never been to Northern Ireland, I was generally aware of the situation. I asked, "Is the president planning to appoint an envoy to Northern Ireland?" Not an envoy, I was told, because that was a sensitive subject with the British government. "But he does want someone to put together a trade conference in Washington in the spring. That would take just a few days of your time. Would you do it?" I said I would think about it and get back to him. I talked with friends at the State Department and on the National Security Council staff at the White House. I also discussed it with Heather. The task seemed interesting and undemanding, and it would be over in a few months, so later I called back and said I would take it on. I had taken the third step on my journey to Northern Ireland.
I left the Senate on January 2, 1995. Seven days later I was sworn in as the special advisor to the president and the secretary of state on economic initiatives in Ireland. The title was long and vague enough not to be offensive to the British government, or to anyone else. My mission was simple: organize a conference in Washington on trade and investment in Northern Ireland and the six counties in the Republic of Ireland which border on the north. I was given an office in the State Department and the authority to hire a small staff. I asked Martha Pope to join me. She had been a member of my Senate staff since 1981, rising to the position of chief of staff. I had then appointed her Senate sergeant at arms, the first woman to hold that position. She didn't know any more about Northern Ireland than I did, but I trusted her judgment and her integrity; in the years to come, both were to prove invaluable, to her, to me, and to the cause of peace in Northern Ireland. The State Department assigned David Pozorski to my staff. He was a career foreign service officer, insightful and methodical. For a brief time he served as acting U.S. consul in Belfast, and he knows the politicians and the issues there. Later, when the negotiations began, I was joined by Kelly Currie, who had worked for a time on my Senate staff. He had left to attend law school and now practices with a large firm in New York. He took a leave of absence to spend two years in Belfast. He is intelligent and gets along very well with people. Pope, Pozorski, and Currie formed a dedicated, able staff, and they deserve a lot of credit for whatever effect I had on the peace process.
A month later I made my first trip to Northern Ireland. At the time I thought it would be my last, and I remember it vividly. I had lived in Berlin and was familiar with the Berlin Wall. But I had never heard of the "Peace Line." When I went to it for the first time, I was taken aback.
The Peace Line is a wall that stands up to thirty feet high, is topped in some places with barbed wire, and goes right through the middle of Belfast--through urban streets, even through buildings. It is one of the most depressing structures I've ever seen. To call it the Peace Line is a huge irony. The name, presumably, is born of the notion that peace can be achieved by building a wall between two warring communities, in this case unionists, who are predominantly Protestant, and nationalists, who are predominantly Catholic. Unfortunately, if people are determined enough, they can get around, through, and over a wall, and enough of them did so in Northern Ireland to keep the fires of conflict burning. I hope and pray that I live to see the day when the Peace Line goes the way of the Berlin Wall: its destruction will be the symbolic end of an age of conflict.
On my first day in Belfast I met with two groups of local officials, businessmen and -women, and the leaders of community and development organizations. One group was nationalist, on their side of the Peace Line. The other was unionist, on their side. I was told that the groups had little or no contact or communication with each other. Yet, to my surprise, they both conveyed essentially the same message. With charts, graphs, and slides, in persuasive presentations, they told me that in Belfast there is a high correlation between unemployment and violence; that unless jobs become available to the young men of the inner city, there cannot be a durable peace. As I sat and listened, I thought I could just as well be in New York, Detroit, Johannesburg, Manila, or any other big city in the world.
The aspirations of people the world over are the same. To satisfy those aspirations they need work. Jobs. Good jobs. Good-paying jobs. Fathers and mothers must be able to satisfy the economic needs of their families: housing, food, health care, education, recreation. They also have to be able to satisfy their own emotional need for productive work, for self-respect, for meaning in their lives.
The dispute in Northern Ireland is not purely or even primarily economic in origin or nature. There are many other strands to this complex conflict. It is, of course, in part religious. It is also very much about national identity: Protestants overwhelmingly want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, in union with England, Scotland, and Wales; thus they are called unionists. Catholics generally want Northern Ireland to become part of a united Ireland; they are called nationalists. But economic deprivation is a contributing factor in the problems in Northern Ireland. Along the Falls Road in Belfast, where the working-class Catholic families congregate, and the Shankill Road, where their Protestant counterparts live, some estimates suggest that as many as a third of the men are born, live out their lives, and die without ever having held a job. For some of these men, I was told, membership in a paramilitary organization offers steady pay and a status that they cannot otherwise achieve. For others, patriotism or idealism or revenge may be sufficient motivation. It is possible, of course, that some are driven by all of these factors and others as well.
On this first trip I gained a sense of the importance attached to American involvement in Northern Ireland. Although my role was minor, there was extensive media coverage of every meeting; my discussions with the community groups were carried live on the radio. I met for the first time many of the men I would come to know well in the coming years: the political leaders of Northern Ireland. I was impressed by their involvement in economic issues, by their candor, and by the extent of their mistrust of "the other side." Most of them were blunt in their negative assessments of the other politicians in Northern Ireland. I didn't know at the time how mild these comments were in comparison to what I would hear later in the negotiations.
I spent nearly a week in Northern Ireland. I was favorably impressed by the energy and intelligence of the people. As I was later to confirm in much more detail, Northern Ireland is an advanced, modern society. Its people are productive, literate, articulate. But for all its modernity and literacy, Northern Ireland has been divided, by a deep and ancient hatred, into two hostile communities, their enmity burnished by centuries of conflict. They have often inflicted hurt, physical and psychological, on members of the other community, and they have been quick to take offense at real or perceived slights. They have a highly developed sense of grievance. As one of the participants in the talks later said to me: "To understand us, Senator, you must realize that we in Northern Ireland will drive 100 miles out of our way to receive an insult." Each is a minority: Catholics in Northern Ireland, Protestants on the island of Ireland. Each sees itself as a victim community, constantly under siege, the recipient of a long litany of violent blows from the other.
As I flew back to the U.S., I thought about how the harsher side of the Northern Irish personality had so dominated the recent past. For a quarter century, violence, and the threat of violence, hung over Northern Ireland like a heavy, unyielding fog. Thousands of people were killed, tens of thousands injured. Fear and anxiety were as much a part of daily life as work and school. But the real damage being done was to people's hearts and minds, where, with each new atrocity, the hostility grew more and more intense. A bombed-out building can be quickly rebuilt, a burned-out car replaced. But as one generation, then another, grew into adulthood knowing so much hate and fear, the prospects for reconciliation receded.
The events of recent years can be understood only in the context of the long history of British domination of Ireland. In the early seventeenth century, at about the time the British began the colonization of North America, they undertook the settlement of Ireland; it was called "the plantation." The policy encouraged settlers from England and Scotland to go to Ireland, the lure being grants of land. As in North America, the settlers landed on the east coast and gradually advanced westward, pushing the native inhabitants ahead of them.
The native Irish were needed to work the land, so their movement to the west was not as complete as in America. Nonetheless, to this day, the western part of Northern Ireland is largely Catholic, the eastern part largely Protestant. Belfast, in the middle of the Protestant heartland, is the capital. The second biggest city is Londonderry (called Derry by Catholics); it is in the west and has a Catholic majority. In 1922, after centuries of British rule and years of bitter conflict, Ireland obtained its independence. But as a result the island of Ireland was partitioned. The twenty-six counties of the south and west, largely Catholic, became the Irish Free State, and eventually the modern Republic of Ireland. The six counties of the north, with a Protestant majority, remained part of the union.
The government of the newly created Northern Ireland established itself, in the later, memorable words of a unionist leader, as "a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people." Discrimination against Catholics was widespread. In Londonderry, although Protestants comprised less than half of the population, they controlled the local government through gerrymandering, and they used that power to maintain their dominance.
So it was not surprising that the Catholic civil rights movement found its voice in Londonderry, in the 1960s and 1970s, in the person of John Hume. Young, articulate, a natural leader, he grew up resenting the injustices he felt were being suffered by Catholics. But he could not support the response of those nationalists who support or condone the use of force to expel the British from Northern Ireland.1 He advocated peaceful protest. He didn't want to throw the unionists out; he wanted to live with them--as equals. Over time, his Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) became the largest nationalist party, and he emerged as the dominant nationalist political leader, gaining election to the European Parliament in 1979 and to the British Parliament in 1983. As the civil rights movement spread across Northern Ireland, violence flared. The inability of the Northern Ireland government to deal with the crisis led to its dissolution in 1972. The British government took direct control of the province, administering its affairs through a Northern Ireland Office.
In the early 1980s, in a series of speeches and articles, Hume argued that the problems of Northern Ireland could not be solved in isolation. He advocated broadly based negotiations to consider simultaneously three relationships: unionists and nationalists within Northern Ireland; the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland; and Britain and the Republic of Ireland. Despite the efforts of some of their leaders, relations between the governments of Britain and Ireland had been poor for a long time after the partition of Ireland. It gradually became evident that if there was to be an end to the periodic outbreaks of violence in Northern Ireland, there had to be cooperation between Britain and the Republic.
The politics of modern Ireland derive from the conflict of the early part of this century. Disagreement over the treaty with Britain2 led to a brief but bitter civil war in the new Irish Free State. The pro-treaty forces, led by Michael Collins, prevailed, and eventually became the modern Fine Gael party. The anti-treaty forces, led by Eamon de Valera, constituted the Fianna Fail party. Thus, Fianna Fail has always been regarded by unionists as the more nationalist (or "green") of the two major Irish parties, and therefore the most suspect.
In 1982, in an effort to return home rule to Northern Ireland, the British government proposed the creation of a new assembly in which there would be a limited form of power-sharing. Nationalists opposed the proposal, demanding the full sharing of power. In the campaign leading up to an election in October of that year, Hume and the SDLP called for the creation of a Council for a New Ireland, to include the main political parties in the Republic of Ireland and the SDLP. It was an attempt to forge a consensus among nationalists as an alternative to the assembly proposed by the British. The assembly was created but nationalists never participated, and it was eventually dissolved in 1986.
In 1983 a Fine Gael Taoiseach,3 Dr. Garrett Fitzgerald, took up the SDLP proposal and established the New Ireland Forum. It brought together the main parties in the Republic with the SDLP to discuss the shape of what was ambitiously called a "New Ireland." Its report in 1984 set out several principles and requirements for a political settlement in Northern Ireland. It included the statement that Irish unity would come about only "with the consent of the people of the North and of the South of Ireland." This was the most flexible position then possible, since the Fianna Fail platform insisted that the only valid unit for self-determination was the whole island. The report set out three possible models for a New Ireland: a unified Irish state; a federal Ireland; or joint British-Irish sovereignty over Northern Ireland. At Hume's insistence, the report also indicated that the members of the Forum were open to other suggestions. The three models were famously dismissed by then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as "out, out, out." But they were very much in the minds of unionists when the Anglo-Irish Agreement was reached the following year.
That agreement, reached on November 15, 1985, was a turning point in the history of Northern Ireland. Article One acknowledged that there would be no change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. Thereafter, the British government undertook to discharge its responsibilities in Northern Ireland in consultation with the Irish government (but without any loss of sovereignty). A standing Intergovernmental Conference, co-chaired by the Irish minister for foreign affairs and the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, was established for this purpose, supported by a permanent joint Secretariat of British and Irish officials based at Maryfield, outside Belfast. Dublin was given the right to be consulted about British policy in relation to Northern Ireland, and the two governments committed themselves to making "determined efforts" to resolve any disagreements.
The unionist community was totally opposed to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, primarily because the role given to the Irish government was interpreted as a step in the direction of "joint sovereignty." The agreement's focus on the Northern Ireland aspects of the intergovernmental relationship also unsettled unionists, because it set Northern Ireland apart from the rest of the United Kingdom, appearing to undermine its constitutional status as an integral part of the U.K. A campaign was organized to reject the agreement. Huge rallies were held, and a petition drive was organized. Assembly and District Council business was disrupted by an "Ulster says No" campaign; normal contact with ministers was broken off. All of the unionist members of Parliament resigned their seats, forcing simultaneous by-elections which were viewed as a referendum on the agreement and which delivered a predictably negative overall result. A "day of action" was organized in March 1986 in an attempt to demonstrate the campaign's ability to bring the agreement down by direct action.
The security forces, led by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, were able to contain the day of action and the other disturbances associated with the "Ulster says No" campaign. Ultimately a Joint Unionist Task Force report, "An End to Drift," acknowledged that the only way forward was to negotiate an alternative to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and unionist leaders approached the British government in August 1987 to initiate discussions to that end. The subsequent "talks about talks" led ultimately to negotiations in 1991 and 1992, which ended without agreement.
In 1988, Hume received a telephone call from a Belfast solicitor. Would he be willing to meet with Sinn Fein officials to talk about some of the issues he had been publicly discussing? It was a risk for Hume. Sinn Fein is a political party with close ties to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the paramilitary organization committed to the use of force to achieve a united Ireland. The SDLP and Sinn Fein compete for nationalist votes; anything that might strengthen Sinn Fein politically could weaken the SDLP. But Hume agreed. He met Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, for the first time, and they began a dialogue which stretched across six years. It was, for part of that time, a complex set of four-way discussions, involving the SDLP, Sinn Fein, and the Irish and British governments.
The acceptance by Dublin of Article One of the Anglo-Irish Agreement was framed in terms which allowed it to be defended as an acceptance of political realities rather than a commitment to a principle. The effect of the article was subsequently challenged in a case taken to the Irish Supreme Court by two leading unionists. The Court's decision confirmed unionists' worst fears by asserting that the achievement of Irish unity was a "constitutional imperative" on every Irish government and that signature of the Anglo-Irish Agreement had not implied any acceptance that Northern Ireland was constitutionally a part of the United Kingdom.
The agreement had been signed by Garrett Fitzgerald, whose government was succeeded in 1987 by one led by Fianna Fail. In 1992, Albert Reynolds became Taoiseach. Reynolds moved Fianna Fail and the government toward accommodation over Northern Ireland. He entered into two parallel dialogues: with the British prime minister, John Major; and with Hume and Adams, as the three men sought to establish a common nationalist position.
On December 15, 1993, Reynolds and Major announced the Downing Street Declaration. It was another significant step toward peace in Northern Ireland. The Declaration arose primarily from the desire of the British and Irish governments to set out the terms on which parties associated with paramilitary organizations in Northern Ireland could enter negotiations. It also sought to tackle one of the major obstacles to agreement in the 1991-92 talks: the difference of view between the two governments over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The Declaration reiterated or expressed a number of key principles which the two governments hoped would provide "the starting point of a peace process designed to culminate in a political settlement." On the main constitutional issue the Declaration provided a resolution of the two governments' conflicting views by upholding the "constitutional guarantee" to unionists that Northern Ireland would not cease to be a part of the United Kingdom without the consent of a majority of its people, while presenting that as part of a new doctrine of Irish national self-determination in which the consent of both parts of Ireland, freely and concurrently given, would be required to bring about Irish unity.
For its part, the British government reiterated that its policy regarding the future constitutional status was based on upholding the democratic wish of the people of Northern Ireland, and that it had "no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland," a phrase originally used by the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, in November 1991. It went on to acknowledge that "it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish," and undertook to introduce legislation to give effect to this or any other measure of agreement on future relationships which might be reached.
The Irish government formally acknowledged that "it would be wrong to attempt to impose a united Ireland, in the absence of the freely given consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland," and accepted that "the democratic right of self-determination by the people of Ireland as a whole must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. . . ." The Taoiseach also said that "in the event of an overall settlement the Irish government will, as part of a balanced constitutional accommodation, put forward and support proposals for change in the Irish Constitution which would fully reflect the principle of consent in Northern Ireland." On the participation of parties associated with paramilitary organizations, the governments said that in the circumstances of a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence . . . democratically mandated parties which establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods and which have shown they abide by the democratic process are free to participate fully in democratic politics and to join in dialogue in due course between the governments and the political parties on the way ahead.
Hume now argued that the Downing Street Declaration removed the basis for the use of force by the republican movement. Their "military campaign" was based on the conviction that the British government was the enemy--that it had selfish strategic interests in Northern Ireland which it would fight to maintain, and that only "physical force" could evict it and create a united Ireland. But, Hume argued, now that London said that it had no such interests in Northern Ireland, that its people could decide their own future, then the rationale for the campaign of violence no longer existed.
British-Irish cooperation was accompanied by a growing war-weariness in Northern Ireland. Families began to long for a more normal life, one not dominated by fear and hatred. The governments and the politicians responded. In 1991 and 1992 negotiations had taken place involving the governments and the four constitutional political parties.4 Those negotiations failed, in part, the governments believed, because they did not include the political parties associated with the paramilitary organizations; as a result, the negotiations were not accompanied by a cessation of violence. But the Downing Street Declaration had addressed that issue, and those who favored dialogue persisted. By the summer of 1994 anticipation was high. On August 30, the IRA declared "a complete cessation of all military activity." On October 6, the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC), the umbrella group for the Protestant paramilitary counterparts to the IRA, declared a cease-fire.
The effect was immediate. Like spring flowers blooming suddenly, hope and optimism surged, displacing the despair and pessimism that had seemed permanent. The Christmas season of 1994 was the brightest and busiest Belfast had seen in decades. The borders were flung open, and people moved freely between north and south, creating commerce and goodwill. By February 1995, when I arrived, hopes were high. But it was a hope tinged with fear and fatalism. Northern Ireland had been through earlier peace efforts, in 1974 and again in 1991-92, and each time there had been the failure, the letdown, the continuation of sectarian conflict.
Later, when I became well known in Northern Ireland, I was often stopped by strangers, on the street, in the airport, in restaurants. They almost always offered words of gratitude and encouragement: "Thank you, Senator." "God bless you." "We appreciate what you're doing." And then, always, the fear: "But you're wasting your time. We've been killing each other for centuries and we're doomed to go on killing each other forever."
This uneasy mixture of hope and fear was tangible in February 1995. I hoped that somehow the conference on trade and investment could be of benefit. I'll probably never be back, I thought, but it would be nice to be of help. The conference was a success. Hundreds of American businessmen and businesswomen attended, as did a large contingent from Northern Ireland. Most of Northern Ireland's political leaders attended as well. I had to struggle to keep the focus on business and not let it become a political convention. The participants were invited to the White House for a reception in a tent on the south lawn. Despite a driving rain, it went well. Spirits were high as men and women who were bitter opponents gathered in one room and heard urgent pleas for peace, from me, from Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, and from President Clinton.
The day before the conference began, the president told me he was looking forward to coming to the event, and we reviewed his proposed remarks. In them he would make a number of announcements. Then he said, "There's one more announcement I'd like to make. Everyone would like you to stay on. I know you were originally told it would just be for six months. But we want this thing to have staying power. We want you to help with a trade mission and some other follow-up this fall. I'd like to say tomorrow that you've agreed to stay on until the end of the year."
I didn't hesitate. "I really like the people I've met, and I want to help them if I can. Yes, you can announce it."
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Meet the Author
George Mitchell served as Senator from Maine from 1980 to 1995, the last six years as Majority Leader. Prior to that he served as U.S. Attorney for Maine and as a United States District Court Judge. Since leaving the Senate, in addition to chairing the Northern Ireland peace talks, he has served as Chairman of the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention of crises in international affairs; Chairman of the National Health Care Commission; Chairman of the Ethics Committee of the U.S. Olympic Committee; and chairman of the commission investigating allegations of corruption in the Olympic bid process. Senator Mitchell is married to the former Heather MacLachlan and they have one child, Andrew.
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