When son born, NI role doubts vanished, says former US senator
George Mitchell says years of talks before Belfast Agreement were toughest of his life
US senator George Mitchell: “Can we leave the Troubles behind? Can we summon the vision and the patience needed to build a peaceful and prosperous future?” Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
George Mitchell has revealed that the birth of his son during negotiations over the Belfast Agreement – and 61 other babies born in Northern Ireland on the same day – motivated him to help forge a deal in the final months of protracted talks.
In a speech to be delivered on Monday at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, Mr Mitchell, the former US senator who forged the 1998 deal says the 3½ years of negotiations were among the most difficult years of his life.
He recalls that prior to flying home for the birth of his son in 1997, he felt despair over the prospects for peace and questioned whether it made sense to pursue “what was obviously a hopeless task”.
In the middle of the first night of his son Andrew’s life, he says, he thought how different his life would be if he had been born a citizen of Northern Ireland.
“I wondered how many babies had been born in Northern Ireland on his birthday. What would their lives be like? I picked up the telephone and called my staff in Belfast. After getting a routine briefing, I asked them to find out how many newborns had been delivered in NI that day. It didn’t take long to get the answer: 61.”
“Surely the parents of those 61 babies had the same hopes and dreams. Shouldn’t those 61 children have the same chance in life that we wanted for our son? Could they get it if NI reverted to sectarian strife?” he asks.
“All of the doubts I had about my role in Northern Ireland vanished. No matter what, I would see it through, all the way to an agreement. I felt an overpowering urge to touch my sleeping son. I picked him up and held him close for a long time.”
Mr Mitchell, who spent Sunday visiting the Border region, is due to speak at the formal opening of Keeper, a visual record of the events that led to the Belfast Agreement on Monday.
After the agreement was approved, Mr Mitchell says he dreamed of returning to the North with his son to observe Assembly members debate ordinary issues of life. When this happened 14 years later, he says he found it deeply emotional.
After half an hour of discussion, his son turned to him and whispered: “Dad, this is really boring. Can we go now?”
Mr Mitchell says: “We all now must ask: can we go now? Can we leave the Troubles behind? Can we summon the vision and the patience needed to build a peaceful and prosperous future?”