How an Irish American Senator went on to play a pivotal role in Northern Ireland's peace process

Editor's Note: The Good Friday Agreement was signed on this day, April 10, in 1998. Below, a piece from our sister publication Irish America Magazine that was published in April 1999 exploring Senator George Mitchell's vital role in the Peace Process.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Philosophers have argued for a long time over the importance of the individual in history. Some say the forces of change, though seemingly blind, always produce that crucial man or woman who will be their instrument and cutting edge. Others argue that unless a person with the right qualifies, attributes and vision takes the driving seat, the process runs into the sand.

A senior Irish government official spoke for many when he told me there would not have been a peace agreement on Good Friday 1998 without George Mitchell in the chair. One is hesitant to speculate about possible alternatives: perhaps some timeserver from the ranks of the great and the good in Britain who would have no chance of winning the trust of Irish nationalists. Alternatively, there might have been somebody from America or mainland Europe who was acceptable to nationalists but lacked the dignity, charm and diplomatic skills to persuade the unionists he was an honest broker.

The biggest difficulty in researching an article about George Mitchell is finding anyone with a bad word to say about the guy. Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams reflects the views of most Irish nationalists and republicans when he says: “Senator Mitchell’s role was indispensable to the success of the negotiation process and to the securing of the Good Friday Agreement. There can be no doubt that without his patience and stamina the outcome could have been very much different.”

On the unionist side, David Kerr, press secretary to Northern Ireland’s First Minister-designate, David Trimble, also praised Mitchell’s role and the way he conducted himself in the multi-party talks. “He was extremely capable and fair: a very genuine person who gave everything he had to making the process work. He acquitted himself very well and did the American people proud. I don’t think anybody else could have done what he did, it was a remarkable political balancing act.”

Unionists are not noted for their uncritical praise of other politicians, least of all politicians who come from the U.S. Couldn’t he find anything negative to say about George Mitchell, I asked. “Not me,” Kerr replied. “I have the highest respect for him.”

It wasn’t always like this. When Mitchell was first introduced as a likely person to chair the peace negotiations at Stormont, there was a good deal of hostile reaction in unionist ranks. Not only was he an American, but he seemed to be part of the Irish American lobby, friendly with the Kennedys and close to a President who was far too sweet on Irish nationalists. In the medieval mindset that grips certain elements in Northern Ireland, Mitchell’s religion was another strike against him. Wasn’t he some kind of Catholic? The Senator must have wondered what he was getting into. “This is a new experience for me,” he told a reporter for The New York Times. “In 30 years in American politics, no one ever asked what my religion is or where my parents were from.”

Somehow or other Mitchell got seated as chair of the talks, after a lengthy wrangle which finally came to an end at midnight on June 12th, 1996. A civil servant had to occupy the chair in case it was usurped by one of the dissidents before Mitchell sat down. There was vituperation and rancour from right-wing unionists, much of it directed at Trimble. It was a difficult moment, but the show finally got on the road.

One of Mitchell’s first tasks was to win the respect and trust of the unionists. A participant in the negotiations said he overcame their reservations by his combination of “statesmanship and presence.” It could be inborn or he may have acquired it during his years as a federal judge, but Mitchell possesses a quiet dignity and grace that make even the greatest loudmouths think twice before they start to rant and rave.

But even when they did rant and rave, a close associate of Mitchell’s points out that the Senator refused to be rattled. His years as majority leader, sitting through all those filibusters, must have taught him the patience which was the most remarkable feature of his performance in the talks. It’s said that one participant spoke for a full seven hours, while Mitchell listened. He adopted a policy of giving people free rein to say their piece. And if there’s one thing Ulster people can do, it’s talk!

Those of us fated to report on the negotiations waited outside in wooden huts, because it was felt that if the media were admitted the politicians would grandstand until doomsday. For us reporters, the cold and rain were less of a worry than the prospect of phoning our newsdesks to say there was “no story.” But if it was mind-boggling much of the time for journalists, what must it have been like for Mitchell, who had to sit there and show an interest in what was being said? “It’s like watching paint dry,” an official said at the time. Then he paused: “No, it’s like listening to paint dry.” But there was method in Mitchell’s madness: a speaker who was cut off could instantly gain an advantage in the grievance factory that often passes for politics in Northern Ireland. Next thing, you would have a party in the talks storming out of the room and into the waiting arms of the media, especially television, to shout at the top of their voice about the suppression of free speech and the civil liberties their forefathers died to achieve.

I first encountered Mitchell during President Clinton’s first visit to Northern Ireland, in 1995. Clinton was hosting a seminar on social and economic development in the Protestant heartland of East Belfast. Mitchell was his economic adviser on Ireland and seemed to be the latest in a series of well-meaning do-gooders from abroad who dip in and out of the Irish situation without significant impact. But I still recall the speech he made that day: his genuine affection for the people of both communities in Northern Ireland was apparent even to someone like myself whose profession disposes him to take a skeptical view of political figures. He also said the more business people in the U.S., could be made aware of the talents and skills in Northern Ireland the better. However, he wasn’t asking them to engage in an act of charity but “to make a hardheaded decision in their own economic interests.”

He first came to real prominence when he agreed to produce a report, along with General John de Chastelain, former Canadian chief of staff and ambassador to the U.S., and Harri Holkeri, former Prime Minister of Finland, on the decommissioning of illegal weapons, an issue which has dogged the peace process from Day One.

We began to look at Mitchell’s background. He was born in Waterville, Maine, on August 20, 1933. His roots are half-Irish, half-Lebanese. His grandfather, named Kilroy, came to the U.S. from Ireland — it is not known which county — with his wife, at the end of the 19th century. They had several children but, as with many immigrants from that time, the family history is sketchy. The Senator believes that the mother died and the father was unable to look after the youngsters, who were given to an orphanage. The Senator’s father was adopted and his name changed from Joseph Kilroy to George Mitchell. In time, he married a Lebanese girl, Mintaha — later Mary — Saad. George Senior was a college janitor while his wife worked the midnight shift in woolen mills for nearly 30 years. This experience of growing up as part of the hard-working poor has never left their son.

Mitchell graduated from Bowdoin College in 1954, then served two years as an officer with the U.S. Army Counter-Intelligence Corps in West Berlin. He took a law degree from Georgetown University. In time he became an executive assistant to Senator Edmund Muskie in Washington D.C. and later returned to Maine to take a partnership in a Portland law firm. He lost a race for the governorship of his native state to an independent candidate in 1974. He was the U.S. Attorney for Maine from 1977 to 1979 and a U.S. District Court Judge from 1979 to 1980.

When Muskie resigned from the Senate to become Secretary of State in 1980, Mitchell was appointed in his place. He was re-elected to the Senate in 1982 and 1988 by handsome majorities. In November 1988 he was elected Senate Majority Leader. Indeed, for six consecutive years, George Mitchell was voted the most respected member of the Senate. He led the effort for the 1990 Clean Air Act, the passage of which took him 10 years. He opposed the Gulf War but supported the U.S. forces once it began. The goal of getting Clinton’s health-care reform through Congress proved too much even for Mitchell’s well-known skills as a negotiator.

He had a reputation for supporting Irish American causes and in January 1994 signed a letter, circulated by Teddy Kennedy, seeking support for a U.S. visa for the Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. But he has never played the ethnic card, telling a reporter he was “not a hyphenated American.” Retiring from the Senate after 14 years, he declined an offer to sit on the Supreme Court but, interestingly, agreed to become the President’s special adviser for economic initiatives in Ireland. Asking Mitchell to become involved in the Irish situation on the ground was one of Clinton’s more inspired moves. Later the President jokingly told Mitchell: “I got the goldmine and you got the shaft.” But in the aftermath of the Agreement, an elated Clinton paid tribute to Mitchell’s “brilliant and unbelievable patience.” Later, when Clinton visited Dublin with the Senator, he told his audience that when they stood up and clapped for Mitchell, “He looked at me and said `Thank you’.”

Senator John H. Chafee has said: “When George Mitchell left the Senate in 1994, we all knew we had lost one of our most able and respected members. However, the Senate’s loss has, not surprisingly, turned out to be the world’s gain — and nowhere is this more obvious than in Northern Ireland, where George Mitchell’s skills, integrity and knack for building consensus has produced the solid start of a real peace.”

On the personal side, Mitchell’s second wife, Heather MacLachlan, gave birth to a baby boy, Andrew, in October 1997, while George was still chairing the multi-party talks. The strain of traveling back and forth across the Atlantic must have been accentuated by the pang of absence from his new wife and their infant child.

Even the journalists in Northern Ireland, hardbitten after years covering the Troubles, treated the talks chairman with respect. Partly it was that presence of his which I spoke about. But he had a neat trick that none of the other participants in the talks ever tried: instead of the easy informality of sitting at a table to answer questions, Mitchell stood at a lectern. I’m not sure where that lectern ever came from, and I don’t remember seeing it in the press-room when Mitchell wasn’t there — maybe he kept it folded-up in a case!

It had a subtle psychological effect on the media, who were brought back to the atmosphere of the schoolroom or the lecture hall rather than the TV studio or even the boxing-ring. Mitchell would come in and read his statement — agreed beforehand with his colleagues General Chastelain and Mr. Holkeri — from the lectern. His prose-style is one of short, declarative sentences, clearly enunciated. I almost wrote that they were simple sentences but that wouldn’t be quite true — there was often a subtle political ambiguity there when it came to controversial issues. He had a way of providing comfort to both sides of an argument, e.g., on the difficult question of decommissioning paramilitary weapons, while appearing at the same time to take a simple and clearcut stance.

That’s another technique he must have learned during those long hours in the Senate. This skill was seen, too, in his answers to journalists’ questions. “He was a past master at the balanced comment,” said a close associate. “Northern Ireland politics is a minefield and if you don’t go too far in one direction or another, you are much more likely to arrive safely on the other side.”

As well as dealing with recalcitrant politicians opposed to any form of agreement, he showed skill in handling allies, who can sometimes be more difficult than opponents. The British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Dr. Mo Mowlam, paid tribute to his technique: “He’d never say no to my idea because he knew I’d do it anyway. But he said, `Now Mo, have you thought about this?’ and ten minutes later I’d changed my mind.”

Another advantage Mitchell possessed, that is not often mentioned, was his background in the politics of Maine. Northern Ireland and Maine are both modest in size and everyone in politics knows everyone else (in Northern Ireland they don’t always speak to each other — but that’s another story.) All politics is local, said the great “Tip” O’Neill and there are certain universal lessons about local politics that George Mitchell learned in Maine which he was able to apply successfully in Northern Ireland.

It must have been difficult for Mitchell traveling back and forth across the Atlantic, arriving jetlagged at Stormont to hear the same tired arguments, coming up against the old familiar obstinacies. The physical strain and the disruption to his personal life can only have been made bearable by the knowledge that peace was within grasp: the IRA and the loyalists were on ceasefire, the unionists had a leader who was prepared to make a deal despite strong reservations, the blueprint for a settlement had already been laid out by John Hume and there were political leaders in Dublin, London and the White House giving the process their full backing.

Mitchell had shown skill on the “micro” level by, for instance, giving free rein to speakers and through his general courtesy and civility, which created a productive atmosphere in the negotiations. But he also showed insight on the broad strategic front. Our politicians had been round the houses before: talks of one kind or another have been going on in Northern Ireland for years.

Mitchell took one simple step, which nobody had ever really tried before: he set a deadline for an agreement. If it’s not done by Easter, I’m out of here, was his message. Like imminent execution, this concentrated the minds of the parties wonderfully. I’m sure there was an element of “not wanting to let George down” but more importantly there was, I suspect, an anxiety not to be exposed before the world as duffers who were incapable of responding to the people’s cry for peace.

The second thing Mitchell did was gather the ideas from the various politicians into a paper which he then supplied to the different parties.

Politics here is as leaky as a sieve but even reliable and trusted sources would not give their journalistic contacts a photocopy. It was said that the version given to each party was “coded,” i.e., there were subtle stylistic differences which would make it immediately obvious where the leak had come from. Some day an enterprising graduate student may get a dissertation out of comparing the different versions: suffice to say, for now, that the piny worked. By comparison with this kind of cleverness, Machiavelli was a mere amateur. Had the document leaked it could have severely embarrassed one side or another because their followers might have scented betrayal. Mitchell made doubly sure this wouldn’t happen by appealing directly to the media on moral grounds (another unusual gesture) to call off the hunt. There was still some leakage of the paper’s contents, but not enough to sink the negotiations.

The final act in the drama was to give the signal to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahem to come to Stormont to chivvy and cajole the parties into closing the deal. Mitchell’s friend Bill Clinton was in regular contact by telephone.

In all of this Mitchell, who had started off being strictly Mister Nice Guy, showed his harder side. His determination to keep to the deadline was crucial to the conclusion of negotiations. His role changed from security blanket to ringmaster; from the apparently passive auditor of the various points of view to the dynamic chairman injecting momentum into the process and pushing the parties closer together. As a senior member of one party put it, “He babysat us.” Having built a reputation with all sides for impartiality he was able to act as a clearinghouse for ideas, whether from governments or political parties. Plans and proposals lost their partisan taint by being routed through Mitchell who made it possible to consider them on their merits rather than their origins.

We miss George Mitchell in Northern Ireland. There are decent and likable politicians here who are learning their way fast around the new institutions but there’s nobody as yet with quite the same class. He has spoken movingly about coming back someday with his son and sitting in the public gallery of the Assembly to listen to a debate about some workaday subject like health or education. Maybe nobody will pay too much attention to the distinguished-looking gentleman sitting with his child and noting the absence of rancour and sectarian bitterness in the speeches and perhaps nodding approvingly as parties from different communities take the same side in a vote.

Then he’ll depart, wending his way down the steps and leaving behind him the politicians, still arguing and debating, and perhaps at this stage only dimly conscious that, without George Mitchell, they wouldn’t be there at all.