The 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement was marked by a high profile political symposium at the celebrated Cooper Union in Manhattan last Thursday, May 23. 

Organized by the Irish American Good Friday Agreement Coalition comprised of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Brehon Law Society and the Irish American Unity Conference, the symposium’s keynote speaker was the U.S. peace process envoy, former Senator George Mitchell.

The panel of invited speakers included Congressmen Joe Crowley, Richard Neal and Mark Thompson, the Director of Relatives for Justice campaign, each of whom were asked by invited members of the media to give their thoughts on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the Good Friday Agreement.  

The foundation of the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement, was approved by voters across the island of Ireland in two referendums held on May 22, 1998. Fifteen years later the symposium took time to celebrate this achievement and to warmly congratulate Mitchell, who had successfully guided it to its realization.  

The symposium was held in the historic Great Hall of the Cooper Union and attracted a large audience of more than 900 eager to hear from the participants about the current state of the agreement, which provides the basis of the power sharing government in Stormont currently led by the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein. 

New York lawyer Marty Glennon, who sits on the Board of Governors for the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, introduced Mitchell and the panelists to the crowd, reminding the audience that, considering the depth of the economic challenges facing the North, it was wise to resist the temptation to become complacent about the state of the peace process.

But on the night it was Mitchell’s deeply personal reflections on what motivated him to become involved in the peace negotiations in the North that moved the audience.

“Not all American stories are fabulous success stories,” he remarked, describing how his father and Irish emigrant grandfather had struggled mightily to make ends meet in the new world that had became their home. 

Along the way, Mitchell explained, they lost touch with their Irish heritage and history. So it was no small thing for him to come to Ireland and stand where they had stood he said, but their failures contrasted sharply with his own success.

That was why he said yes to President Bill Clinton’s request that he become the peace process envoy to the North, Mitchell explained. In getting to grips with his own history it could be productive to wrestle with the history of the nation, he said.

Arriving in Ireland, he was astonished by the pessimism of everyone he met that a deal could ever be struck. “

Thank you senator, we appreciate what you’re trying to do,” Mitchell recalled each person saying. “But they always ended with words of despair. You’re wasting your time, this conflict can’t be ended, we’ve been killing each other for centuries and we’re doomed forever.” 

Mitchell explained that he spent most of his time and efforts trying to reverse such attitudes. In particular he encouraged political leaders, who the public often take their cues from, he said, to exercise caution about how they expressed their views on the chances for success of the process. 

Asked if the Good Friday Agreement has ended The Troubles, or if there is still a threat from dissidents and loyalists, Neal was unequivocal. 

“There is a threat from the dissidents, there’s no question about it,” Neal told the Irish Voice. “They don’t seem to be terribly well organized. Some economic opportunity has arrived with the agreement to get them on the path forward. The violence to date has been sporadic, but it’s dangerous.”

Former Senator George Mitchell addresses guests at the Good Friday Agreement Symposium at Cooper Union in New York last Thursday.James Higgins