April 18, 2023
“I love Northern Ireland. I love the people. I love the place. They’ve been extraordinarily generous and hospitable to me and my wife, my family,” former senator George Mitchell of Maine told Jill Lawless of the Associated Press today at Queen’s University, located in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland.
Mitchell, who is 89 years old and is being treated for leukemia, has avoided public events for three years, but he traveled to Belfast this week to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement that he helped to hammer out in 1998.
This anniversary is no small thing.
In April 1998, after 30 years of violence that became known as “the Troubles,” Mitchell helped to broker a peace between the British government, the Irish government, and eight political parties from Northern Ireland. It was not an easy negotiation. Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom when the rest of Ireland became an independent state in 1921. From the 1960s until the 1990s, Northern Ireland was torn between those who wanted it to stay part of the United Kingdom-—mostly Protestants—and those who wanted it to join the rest of Ireland, who were mostly Catholics.
The conflict between the two looked much like a civil war, and more than 3,500 people, mostly civilians, died in the violence.
In 1995, Mitchell had just retired from his position as Democratic Senate majority leader when then-president Bill Clinton asked him to become a special envoy to Northern Ireland. For the next five years, Mitchell would chair three separate sets of peace talks. “It seemed like 50 years at the time,” he told Lawless. “But we persevered and prevailed.”
By spring 1996, Mitchell had gotten most sides to agree on six principles, including renouncing violence, and then talks began. From the start, Mitchell told the participants that neither the U.S. president nor the British prime minister could impose peace: it would have to come from the leaders in Northern Ireland themselves.
“Mostly, it was listening on my part,” Mitchell told Paul Kane of the Washington Post. The different sides called him to vent about the other sides, and Mitchell listened. Taking counsel from his brief time as a federal judge, he would not socialize with any of the different participants to avoid looking as if he were playing favorites. Occasionally, he would issue “rulings” to the opposing sides about their positions, as if he were a judge.
After two years, in early 1998, one leader called to say he was ready to move forward. After his years as a Senate leader, Mitchell recognized that “when you get the votes, you should hold the vote,” he recalled in his interview with Kane. He told the 10 different parties that they had until Good Friday to agree to a settlement.
“I had no authority to impose it,” he told Kane. But two years of listening had paid off: all the different sides trusted him. “He listened us to agreement,” one of the political leaders said.
The Good Friday Agreement set up a new government for Northern Ireland, with a parliament that represented both those who wanted to stay in the U.K. and those who wanted to join Ireland. Much of the day-to-day responsibility for Northern Ireland fell on this new parliament rather than coming from the U.K. government. The new lawmakers set out to show the world how to heal a deeply divided society.
Boston College professor Robert Savage, who specializes in Irish History, told me that Mitchell, with Clinton’s support, “chaired talks that dragged on and on but led to compromises by unionists and nationalists that ended the conflict. In many ways the stars were aligned. Tony Blair, the Labour prime minister, had been elected with a huge majority in Parliament. And the Irish prime minister or Taoiseach was also willing to take chances for peace.”
“Northern Ireland is still challenged by all sorts of tensions,” Savage wrote. “But the shooting and bombing that left over 3,500 dead and many more [wounded] both physically and emotionally has ended. The Good Friday Agreement is now 25 years old and what it delivered was not perfect but it greatly moved a peace process forward.”
The tensions lie in the reality that for many of the poor on both sides, the peace did not bring the social services, education, or health care they had hoped it would. Still, schools and sports teams have reached across the old lines to create communities, and international immigrants have brought new diversity.
The Good Friday Agreement “remains a remarkable achievement,” Savage wrote. Clinton “has earned the respect of the Irish people and many in Britain for his role in cajoling all sides to engage in a difficult dialogue that produced an agreement that ended 30 years of bloodshed.”
Last week, President Biden spoke at Ulster University in Belfast. “It’s good to see Belfast, a city that’s alive with commerce, art—and, I’d argue, inspiration,” he said. “The dividends of peace are all around us.” He continued: “Twenty-five years ago this week, the landmark Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was signed. And it wasn’t easy…. [T]here were no guarantees that the deal on paper would hold. No guarantees that it would be able to deliver the progress we celebrate today. And it took long, hard years of work to get to this place. It took a people willing to come together in good faith and to risk boldly for the future…. At the time, it seemed so distant.
“I think sometimes, especially [with] the distance of history, we forget just how hard-earned, how astounding that peace was at the moment. It shifted the political gravity in our world…. In 1998, it was the longest-running conflict in Europe since the end of World War Two. Thousands of families had been affected by the Troubles. The losses were real. The pain was personal…. Peace was not inevitable…. As George Mitchell often said, the negotiations had…‘Seven hundred days of failure and one day of success.’ But they kept going because George and all the many others never stopped believing that success was possible.”
In the 25 years since the agreement was signed, Biden noted, Northern Ireland’s gross domestic product has doubled, and Northern Ireland “is a churn of creativity, art, poetry, theater.” And, he added, “All the immense progress we see around us was built through conversation and compromise, discussion and debate, voting and inclusion. It’s an incredible attestation to the power of democracy to deliver the needs for all the people.”
“And now I know better than most how hard democracy can be at times,” Biden noted. “We in the United States have firsthand experience how fragile even longstanding democratic institutions can be. You saw what happened on January the 6th in my country.”
“We learn anew with every generation that democracy needs champions.”