George Mitchell: Blessed are the peacemakers
Deaglán de Bréadún
The appointment of George Mitchell as President Obama’s new Middle East peace envoy has to be the first piece of good news about that troubled part of the world in a long, long time.
As a journalist covering the Northern Ireland peace talks ten years ago for The Irish Times, I got to know the former Senator Mitchell quite well. He is an impressive personality. He speaks clearly and lucidly, which marks him out from many other politicians for a start.
He also has a fairminded and balanced approach, partly arising from his personal outlook but also deriving from his experience as a judge. He was Senate Majority leader in the US for six years, so he knows a good deal about conciliation and keeping disparate elements “on side”.
He was one of those outstanding individuals who, by happy historical coincidence, joined together in the difficult and frustrating but ultimately successful effort to bring peace to the troubled soil of Northern Ireland.
In my book, The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland (second edition published by Collins Press, 2008) I chronicle Mitchell’s role as chairman of the talks leading to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Whereas the critical players were people like Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, David Trimble and Seamus Mallon, because they were the ones who had to take the risks and put themselves on the line, the part played by George Mitchell was pretty well indispensable.
He was an ideal chairman. He calmed people down. He seemed actually to like the negotiators on all sides, or at least to understand the pressures they were under. He has a deep humanity and concern for others, especially the long-suffering folk of Northern Ireland and, no doubt, the Middle East as well.
The US has (often rightly) come in for a lot of flak politically in recent decades. In many people’s eyes around the world it has, rightly or wrongly, become a synonym for warmongering and greed. But there is a better side to that country, there is a great deal of idealism there and it produces fine people as well as those who are regarded as reactionaries. I think of Bruce Morrison, for example, who also played an important role in the peace process, and of course Senator Mitchell himself.
He showed that better side of America in his dealings with the politicians and people of Northern Ireland. The ultimate test is that you would find it very, very difficult, if not impossible, to find anyone on either side in the North who would have a bad word to say about him.
When I met him in Belfast last year, we compared notes on Prostate Cancer. I was able to tell him about my successful treatment for the disease. I trust that he, too, has made a full recovery because he will sure as hell need all his strength for the awesome task ahead.
This is his second time entering the Middle East fray. Another veteran of the N. Ireland talks, Tony Blair, also became a peace envoy but he has not made much impact unfortunately. He did a very good job in Belfast but his credibility in the Arab world must have plummeted when he back the ill-advised Iraqi invasion. I couldn’t help noticing that, when Gaza was being bombed back to the Stone Age, Mr Blair was in Washington getting a medal from President Bush. Wrong time, wrong signal, Tony!
Let’s wish George Mitchell the best of luck in his endeavours. He’s sure going to need it.