George Mitchell says son’s birth drove him in peace process

Former US senator speaks of ‘doubt and despair’ before Good Friday Agreement

Former US senator George Mitchell described the Good Friday Agreement, which he chaired, as one day of success which had been preceded by “700 days of failure”. File photograph: Aidan Crawley

Former US senator George Mitchell described the Good Friday Agreement, which he chaired, as one day of success which had been preceded by “700 days of failure”. File photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

Former US senator George Mitchell has spoken of how the birth of his son Andrew drove him when others were despairing of the Northern Ireland peace process.

Mr Mitchell described the Good Friday Agreement, which he chaired, as one day of success which had been preceded by “700 days of failure”.

He was the guest speaker at an event in the Abbey Theatre Rising to Reconciliation: A Journey in Music, Poetry and Song which commemorated both the Rising and the 18th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Among those in attendance were the former SDLP leader John Hume, the former taoiseach John Bruton and the acting Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan.

Mr Mitchell recalled flying back to New York in October 1997 to be present for the birth of his son Andrew. The peace talks had “ground on relentlessly with invective, insult and repetition almost beyond human endurance but without progress”.

He had been asked by the media on his departure if he intended to quit the peace talks and said no publicly, but privately he had severe doubts.

“During a gloomy sleepless flight I was filled with doubt and despair. It was obviously a hopeless task,” he recalled.

Mr Mitchell said the birth of Andrew had given him pause for thought and he considered how different his son’s life would be if he had been born in a Northern Ireland still scarred by conflict.

He rang up his staff in Belfast and he found out that 61 children had been born in Northern Ireland on October 16th, 1997, the same day as his son.

“We had high hopes and dreams for our son. Surely those 61 babies had the same hopes and dreams. Shouldn’t those 61 children in Northern Ireland have the same chance in life that we wanted for our son? All the doubts about my role in Northern Ireland vanished. No matter what, I would see it all the way through to an agreement.”

The Good Friday Agreement was signed on April 10th, 1998. It was a dream that “sustained me for the longest, most difficult years of my life,” he said. At its conclusion “we were all overcome with exhaustion and emotion”.

Seminal moment

Mr Flanagan said it was generally acknowledged that Easter 1916 had been a seminal moment in the history of Ireland, but so too had been the Good Friday Agreement of Easter 1998.

It had been overwhelmingly endorsed on both sides of the border and amounted to a fresh start for the relation between the communities in Ireland and between Britain and Ireland, Mr Flanagan stated.

“The principles of the Good Friday Agreement remain the template for all our continuing work to embed the peace, embrace reconciliation and promote partnership.”

Among those who participated in the event were The Gloaming’s Iarla Ó Lionáird, the actor Andrew Scott and singer of The Island Paul Brady. It was compered by Olivia O’Leary.