George Mitchell warns against return of hard Border
Brexit is ‘unwise but must be dealt with’, says former US envoy to Northern Ireland
George Mitchell: ‘The Brexit decision was unwise, but it is a reality and that has to be dealt with.’ Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The re-establishment of the Border could be “very harmful” to the Northern Ireland peace process, according to the former US senator George Mitchell, who chaired negotiations that led to the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
“To re-establish the border would be a huge step backwards,” Mr Mitchell told The Irish Times .
“It would be very harmful if the Border is recreated in the way it was before the agreement,” he said.
“I know the Secretary of State [for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire] is aware of this, I know the Taoiseach is aware of this. My hope is that it won’t return to what it was, that the open border will remain.”
He said the disappearance of the Border has transformed the relationships between North and South in a way that has been important to understanding in between the two traditions, on the island and within the North itself.
“The most important thing is that it has enabled people and commerce to flow,” he said.
That in turn has led to engagement between the two communities that has eroded the stereotypes which were common previously, he said.
A former majority leader in the US Senate, Mr Mitchell served as the US special envoy to Northern Ireland from 1995-2001 and was instrumental in putting together the powersharing settlement enshrined in the Belfast Agreement of 1998.
He maintains an interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland and expressed the belief that politicians would overcome their differences to re-establish the institutions following their recent breakdown and the subsequent elections.
“I certainly don’t follow it as closely as I did when I was there . . . but I do keep in touch with events. I visit Belfast, I was there about a month ago. I’m in Dublin from time to time. I try to keep in touch.”
Mr Mitchell is reluctant to criticise the decision of the UK to leave the European Union, but it is clear where his views lie.
“Brexit was a democratically taken decision, and it must be respected,” he said, “even though I and many others preferred a different view.”
EU helped Ireland
He says that the common membership of the EU helped Ireland and the UK work together on the North.
“It led the governments and enabled the governments to co-operate on the North,” he said.
“The EU has been a very important part of the history of the peace process,” he said.
“The Brexit decision was unwise, but it is a reality and that has to be dealt with,” Mr Mitchell said.
“I hope the UK government and EU governments tone down the inflammatory rhetoric, and maintain the UK’s ties to the EU.”
He said both sides need to adopt a more can-do attitude in the forthcoming negotiations.
“I think both have to get into it saying, ‘We have to get this job done’, not saying, ‘Oh look how bad this is.’ It’s a question of attitude.”
He is reluctant to express a view on how the Brexit decision affects the landscape for a united Ireland in the future.
“I don’t know how it’s going to develop,” he said.
“What the Good Friday Agreement did was to expressly legitimise both aspirations, and say that both were free to advocate fully through peaceful means. How each side will be affected by this is not clear yet.”