Right man, right time

Making Peace By Senator George Mitchell Heinemann 193pp, £17.99 in UK

Making Peace By Senator George Mitchell Heinemann 193pp, £17.99 in UK

I first met George Mitchell in 1993 when I briefed him as Senate Majority Leader on our plans for establishing peace in Northern Ireland. Despite the fact that he had not visited Ireland, he displayed a keen interest - and vouched for the fact that the US administration, guided by President Clinton, was ready and willing to assist us in our efforts. Little did I realise at that time just how vital a role he was to play in the evolution and delivery of the Good Friday Agreement. George Mitchell was the right man at the right time. His background prepared him well for the minefields of northern Ireland's divisive and bitter politics. Besides serving as Senator for Maine for 15 years (six as Majority Leader) he had also served as Attorney General and District Court Judge in his state. He was to develop one great personal attribute in those years - patience - and how that was to be tested over the years in the talks!

Fortunately for all involved in the peace efforts, when Mitchell informed Bill Clinton of his decision to step down from the Senate, Clinton anticipated the fact that he might need Mitchell in the future in a yet-to-be determined role. Of course Mitchell, with a deep sense of commitment to public service, was both ready and willing. He had no idea just how involved in Ireland he was to become for the next few years.

Mitchell was appointed as Special Advisor on Northern Ireland to President Clinton in January 1995 with the primary task of organising a conference in Washington on trade and investment in Northern Ireland and the Border counties. He didn't know it at the time, but he was in effect becoming Special Envoy - a title which could not be used due to British sensitivities. In a very short time Northern Ireland and its people grew on Mitchell and he got to grips with the distrust, the bitterness, the downright hatred that exists on each side of the so-called Peace Line. Despite having his own personal plans, Mitchell again responded positively to Clinton when asked if he would stay on after the very successful Conference in Washington.


The infamous Washington Three condition set out by Paddy Mayhew in his speech of March 7th 1995 was, in the strangest of ways, to lead to Mitchell's total involvement in the politics of northern Ireland. In what was meant to be a helpful speech, Mayhew stated that there had to be "actual decommissioning of some arms to demonstrate good faith". This was a step too far for Sinn Fein/IRA and became a hurdle that looked insurmountable for many months. Reluctantly (yet again) the British Government agreed to an International Body on Decommissioning and Mitchell came centre stage, this time accompanied by Gen. John de Chastelain and Harry Holkeri. The personal chemistry that developed between this diverse triumvirate is well documented in the book, and was a joy to behold during the negotiations in Stormont Buildings. Mitchell describes his first history lessons on Northern Ireland, which were delivered by the Rev Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams to himself and Clinton during the 1995 visit to Belfast. He found it difficult to understand how there could be two totally different versions of history among such a small area of land and one and a half million people. Is this any different to Cyprus or former Yugoslavia? In fact I recall Mitchell saying, on returning to Belfast after a trip to Bosnia, that the latter might offer a solution sooner than Northern Ireland.

After many months of consultations, the Mitchell Report was delivered and Mitchell and his team said their farewells to Ireland. The Canary Wharf bomb went off, the British Government decided upon elections for a forum and talks were scheduled for June 10th, 1995. Mitchell and his team were called on again for a task that was meant to last for six months. The welcome wasn't exactly an advert for Ireland of the cead mile failte: John Taylor, in particular, was offensive about Mitchell's appointment (should I be surprised?), comparing it to putting an American Serb in charge of talks on the future of Croatia.

Mitchell is mild in his description of the manoeuvre to get him into the chair of the talks at 12.32 a.m. on June 12th. Tension was at fever pitch and - such were the concerns that the Rev Ian Paisley's outfit would physically prevent Mitchell from having a seat in the room - a British civil servant had to remain in Mitchell's chair until he could sit into it himself. The opening session was brief to the point of being abrupt, and I had to endure a barrage of sectarian bile from the Rev McRae as we left the room. It was a bumpy start for what was going to be a very bumpy journey.

Mitchell gives an insight into what was to be a largely unproductive 18 months littered with insults, invective and recrimination. He also had to cope with some very trying personal experiences. His humanity is to the fore in the telling of his young wife Heather's miscarriage and the death of his brother Robbie: huge burdens to cope with from the wrong side of the Atlantic. Another trying event for him was when the British press alleged that his long-time trusted staffer Martha Pope had a liaison with Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein. The lack of support he received at the time leaves him wondering if this was an example of the "infamous British dirty tricks" brigade? Martha sued and, having cleared her name and reputation, rightly collected from a very irresponsible press.

Despite all the difficulties and the lack of progress, Mitchell and his team persevered. There was always violence in the background; elections were fought in the UK and the Republic in a matter of months. Still Mitchell and his team stuck to their task. There is a strong sense throughout the book that if they failed, Northern Ireland would be condemned to another quarter-century of violence.

Circumstances and governments changed but progress was still slow. Mitchell at all times built relationships with the key players, which would prove to be vital in the lead-in to the Good Friday Agreement. We get some fresh insights into the roles played by Blair, Ahern (in very difficult circumstances caused by the death of his mother) Mowlam, Trimble, Hume, Adams and the public servants without whom the agreement would not have been achieved.

It is fair to say that risks have been taken by all in the interests of peace, and only time will tell if that peace will be durable and lasting. There are two chapters to be written yet to finish this honest account of the vital involvement of a citizen of Waterville, Maine in establishing peace in Northern Ireland: one relates to how the parties resolve the impasse on decommissioning; the other relates to the lives of the 61 children born in Northern Ireland on the day that Andrew McLaghlan Mitchell was born to George and Heather.

However events unfold we can only salute you, George Mitchell.

Dick Spring is Labour T.D. for North Kerry and led the Irish delegation to the Stormont talks in 1996/97.