How George Mitchell helped the Irish put "the troubles" behind them
In Making Peace, George Mitchell recalls a tense day in 1998 when haggling between the British and Irish governments held up the conclusion to the Northern Ireland peace talks, which he was chairing. The crucial deadline loomed, the drumroll had begun, when the bad news came that the two governments were stalled.
Mitchell knew the press would insist on knowing what was going wrong and who was responsible. He was taken aback when officials from Dublin and London asked him to take the rap and accept full responsibility for the delay--so they didn't get blamed. With great angst (the former senate majority leader, as those of us who've covered him know, is a serious straight arrow, unaccustomed to lying or even fibbing), he and his two co-peace makers agreed to go out and dissemble. "We understood," he writes, that "absorbing blame was one of the reasons we were there."
In saying that, Mitchell pinpoints the real function of the three-member international commission he headed, which ultimately helped produce Northern Ireland's Good Friday Agreement last year. This was not really mediation; or shuttle diplomacy; or Holbrookean head-knocking. The Mitchell commission essentially provided cover for the politicians in the region. It shielded them from the consequences of doing the right thing, which meant shedding encrusted principles and repositioning, while retaining their dignity--and their constituencies. Concessions which would have been impossible if proffered to the enemy could be effectively laundered through Mitchell and his colleagues, who would, when necessary, "absorb the blame."
We forgive him for fibbing. We instead congratulate George Mitchell for his role in Northern Ireland. He is a tremendous hero, in ways most Americans have yet to recognize, in part because the Norwegians foolishly left his name off when they gave the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 to the leaders of the two largest Catholic and Protestant political parties who helped negotiate the agreement. Mitchell, who had retired from the senate and turned down such plums as an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, was a special advisor to the president on Northern Ireland in December, 1995 when the White House relayed the request from the governments of Britain and Ireland asking him to chair a committee of three, including a retired Canadian general and a former prime minister of Finland, which rather strangely became known as "the international body."
Its first mission was to resolve, or better yet, help divert, an impossible dispute over whether or not Northern Ireland paramilitaries should "decommission" their bombs and guns. After that was accomplished, the same three were asked to chair negotiations among the many Catholic and Protestant fictions in Northern Ireland designed to produce the equally impossible dream of a "lasting peace" in the province.
They told him it would last six months. It took the better part of three years. Most of the talk during that period made arguments about the shape of tables seem glamorous. Northern Ireland's politicians are notorious windbags and Mitchell had to sit through, and look interested in, the insufferable huffings, puffings and ritual incantations of the likes of the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the never-say-yes wing of the Protestant community; Gerry Adams, president of the never-say-die Irish republican organization known affectionately by British intelligence as Sinn Fein/IRA, not to mention dozens of lesser known figures repeating lines memorized long ago about all the injustices and indignities heaped upon them since sixteen hundred and whatever.
At the beginning, Mitchell had to sit in a room and listen by closed circuit as small-time pols debated his worthiness to chair the talks.
He put up with mean-spirited lies in the press about the integrity of a trusted staff member, spread by opponents of the talks and sustained by cagey no-comments from British authorities. He fought a pattern of damaging leaks about the negotiations he believes were generated from inside Britain's Northern Ireland Office, which administers the province and included a number of old-line types who simply did not want the process to succeed.
Intermittently, the Irish Republican Army would set off a bomb; Protestant terrorists would murder a Catholic taxi driver; and many of the same politicians who were pretending to want a peaceful settlement did their best to stir up old hostilities with hateful comments and belligerent sectarian parades.
Mitchell, meanwhile, completely sacrificed his personal life, missing the death of a beloved brother, his wife's miscarriage (on the next try, they had a son, Andrew, whose birth he did not miss), and the comfortable easy life to which he was richly entitled after serving as a U.S. Attorney, a federal judge, and a uniquely respected U.S. senator from Maine.
Frankly, the political parties in Northern Ireland and the two governments didn't deserve George Mitchell.
The people did, however, and the palpable desire of ordinary folks on both sides to put "the troubles" behind them was what kept Mitchell going.
This is a nuts and bolts book, a case study in conflict resolution, but there is a subtext of great passion. This man spent all this time and energy helping heal a little corner of a small island because the children there were suffering. The birth of his son during the peace process only stiffened his
resolve--he learned that 61 babies were born in Northern Ireland on that same day and vowed that, for them, he would keep going, keep talking, keep pushing and prodding and nagging and cajoling until the job was done.
The achievement is worth studying for future applications. But the timing was unique--at that point in the course of a prolonged and intractable conflict, when many, if not all, of the combatants had exhausted themselves and wished desperately, albeit secretly, that the whole argument would just go away. They were ready to stop, but had suffered so many wounds, sworn so many oaths, and uttered "never" so often, that they were finding it difficult to take advantage of the moment.
The Irish Republican Army declared a cessation of hostilities in the late summer of 1994, meaning an end to organized terrorism against the British government and various innocent bystanders. On Oct. 13, 1994, Protestant terrorists soon joined what was being called "the peace process" by declaring their own cease-fire. Belfast had its first truly joyous, fear-free Christmas in decades as troop patrols left the streets. But the various sides in this complicated equation--including the British government--seemed unable to move sufficiently from previous positions to take the sort of concrete steps that could lead to a more stable peace in the province. The "international body's" recommendation that substantive negotiations run parallel to discussions on the "decommissioning of weapons" got a conservative Prime Minister out of a deep hole he had dug by insisting on progress on the weapons issue before allowing all the Northern Ireland parties into talks.
Its deft handling of the sensibilities of David Trimble, head of the Ulster Unionist Party, allowed the Protestant politician to engage in unprecedented dialogue with archenemy Sinn Fein in a way that limited the political damage to Trimble and his party. And by allowing the extreme wing of Protestant politics, led by Rev. Inn Paisley, to stalk away from the peace talks rather than give in to its demands, the commission eliminated from the process the single greatest obstructionist force in the province. Had Paisley remained, he could have wrecked the entire enterprise.
More than a year after the voters of Northern Ireland ratified the peace plan on May 22, 1998, implementation is incomplete and behind schedule. Protestant and Catholic parties are still struggling to organize a Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast to function as a "power sharing" regional government for the province. Mitchell and the political leadership of Northern Ireland, Britain, and Ireland calculated that the public's palpable yearning for an end to hostilities and for a normal life would overcome a negative reaction to a Paisley walkout. They're still arguing about the decommissioning of weapons. Violence continues at the extremes. Northern Ireland, after all, is still a place where people will drive a hundred miles out of their way "to receive an insult," as Mitchell was warned early in the process.
The peace process is, as always, behind schedule and may yet face new crises. But it has already set a record for success and, to some extent, has replaced weary resignation with hope. The process is bumpy, but it lives, and that is hugely important.
FRED BARBASH was The Washington Post's London correspondent from 1994-1997. During that period, he also covered the Northern Ireland peace negotiations. He is currently a business editor at the Post.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1999|
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