Mitchell says current leaders must do what is necessary in Northern Ireland

Chairman of Belfast Agreement talks says today’s politicians must show the same courage and vision as those in 1998

George Mitchell: said 'history will judge favourably' those in political leadership at the time of the Belfast Agreement. Photograph: The Irish Times

Current leaders must do what is necessary to preserve peace and return self-government to Northern Ireland, George Mitchell, who chaired the talks that lead to the Belfast Agreement 25 years ago has urged.

In a video address to a conference on the accord in Washington on Tuesday he said it was up to the leaders of Northern Ireland, Ireland and the UK to act with the same courage and vision as their predecessors in 1998.

He told the conference that “history will judge favourably” those in political leadership at the time of the agreement but the greatest heroes were the people of Northern Ireland who worked for and supported a democratic peace process.

Mr Mitchell said that on the evening the deal was reached in 1998, he told the then political leaders that it would be up to others in the future to safeguard their work.

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He said current leaders faced updated versions of old problems as well as new ones.

“But current leaders can and must do what is necessary to preserve peace and return self-government to Northern Ireland to ensure for those they represent freedom, hope and opportunity. "

Mr Mitchell praised the then taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British prime minister Tony Blair. He said they had help build a house of peace on foundations laid by their predecessors John Major, John Bruton and Albert Reynolds.

He said that although the talks that lead to the agreement were ultimately successful, the process had experienced about 700 days of failure before reaching one day of success.

“For almost all but last two weeks, negotiations were negative and repetitious. There were insults, several dramatic walkouts and some expulsions.”

Former US ambassador to the United Nations Nancy Soderberg, who served on the US national security council in the White House as part of administration of Bill Clinton, told the conference that the agreement was a good story.

However she asked why Northern Ireland had not come further in 25 years. She said there was no devolved government and society was as divided as ever.

She said at the time of the Brexit vote in the UK there was no thought as to how to protect the Belfast Agreement.

Rather than taking its place among modern European countries, its prosperous future remained stymied by old fears and old resentments, she said.

“Certainly the agreement between the UK and EU –the Windosr framework is a key step in protecting the Good Friday agreement and helping to ensure Northern Ireland benefits from the UK internal market and the EU single market,” she said.

However, she maintained there remained hard work to be done to get the Northern Ireland political institutions back up and running and to promote economic growth.

Tanks and troops

Ms Soderberg told the conference, which was organised by the American University and Georgetown University in Washington as well as the Ulster University, that the principles of the Belfast Agreement of devolved power-sharing representative government remained the best way forward.

“Twenty-five years on the United States remains key to pressing for that progress”, she said.

Parliamentary under-secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office Lord Jonathan Caine said “we should never under-estimate the achievements that have been ushered in (to Northern Ireland) by the 1998 agreement”.

He described the lack of a functioning executive and assembly since February last year as “incredibly frustrating for all of us who support the agreement and want to see it flourish”.

He said it was right that the UK had sought to make legally-binding changes to the Northern Ireland protocol negotiated by former prime minister Boris Johnson to protect those elements of the deal that were working while fixing those that were not.

“I am in no doubt the Windsor frameworks represents a considerable improvement in every respect on the old protocol and I do hope sincerely it can provide the basis to move things forward and restore the institutions.”

Former speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi told the conference in a video message that the US would always protect the gains of the 1998 accord for the sake of the children of Northern Ireland.

She said when she went to Northern Ireland in the 1990s she saw tanks and troops on the Border but by 2019 the different jurisdictions were only marked by a sign on the road.

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is the former Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent