George Mitchell, Chairman, International Commission on Disarmament in Northern Ireland
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, we talk with former U.S. Senator George Mitchell about his role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: George’s first big deal was to make sure that people stayed in the same room while their counterparts were talking and actually listened. That’s how far we have come. That was the distance that was traveled between the beginning and the Good Friday Agreement. [applause]
GEORGE MITCHELL: There must be a policy of not giving in to terrorist acts of violence. You cannot let the men of violence control the agenda and control the future.
PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
PORTER: In 1995 President Clinton sent former U.S. Senator George Mitchell to Northern Ireland to broker peace in a region which has defied all such efforts for decades. But this particular round of talks culminated in the ground-breaking Good Friday peace agreement and the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for Irish leaders John Hume and David Trimble. Before George Mitchell could even begin these peace talks he had to fend off accusations of bias and establish credibility with all sides.
MITCHELL: Well, I was fortunate in that I was invited to serve as Chairman of the peace negotiations by the two governments, who were the sponsors of the talks. And most of the political parties in Northern Ireland supported my serving as Chairman. As often happens in public affairs, although only a minority opposed me, it’s the opponents who get all of the press attention. Anybody looking at the newspapers would have thought that 95% of people over there opposed me when in fact it was a minority in one community. Just a couple of political parties out of the 10 political parties that were eligible to participate in the negotiations. So the first point is that the opposition wasn’t as widespread as many people had the impression.
The second was that I benefited from the fact that I had been in Northern Ireland for about a year-and-a-half prior to that. I’d served as President Clinton’s Special Advisor on economic initiatives and then at the initiative and request of the British and Irish governments I’d served as Chairman of an international commission on disarmament in Northern Ireland. And so most of them had seen me work, had worked with me, and had become convinced that I could and would be fair and impartial. And that really, I think, more than anything, was decisive in my favor.
PORTER: What in your life prepared you for this task?
MITCHELL: Serving as Majority Leader of the United States Senate. The Senate as you know has the right of unlimited debate; any Senator can speak at any time at any length on any subject and many frequently do. So as Majority Leader for six years I had to listen to some long, rambling, often not-very-persuasive or coherent presentations. And I didn’t realize it at the time but the Lord, in the mysterious way in which He works, was secretly preparing me to chair the Northern Ireland negotiations, where I experienced some long, rambling, not-very-persuasive presentations over a two year period.
PORTER: All right. [laughing] What’s different about the Good Friday agreement? As opposed to the other peace agreements that we’ve had, what gives this one more chance of success than any previous peace agreement?
MITCHELL: Well first and foremost of course, it has been endorsed by 85% of the people on the island of Ireland in a public referendum. You can’t do much better than that in a democratic society. This was the first time there has been a vote, island-wide, in Ireland in 80 years. And the voter participation was very high. The approval was 95% in the Republic of Ireland and 71% in Northern Ireland. So, that’s something that distinguishes it from other efforts: overwhelming endorsement by the people themselves after an intense campaign.
Second, in Northern Ireland at least, this is the first time that all of the participants have gotten together. In fact, although there were ten political parties eligible to participate in the talks, and all ten participated at one time or another, never did we have everyone in the same room at the same time. As you know they did not have a long history—indeed any history—of talking to each other, and no history of compromise or conciliation. So it was hard to get it going. But in a real sense this was the most inclusive negotiation that’s ever been held. And I think that is decidedly different.
And finally I think that it’s the will of the people. As reflected in the vote and as reflected in the general war weariness that overtook the people of Northern Ireland. They’ve been in conflict for a quarter-century: thousands killed, tens of thousands injured; tremendous fear and anxiety permeated the society. I think people wanted a more normal life and this will help provide it, although I want to emphasize the agreement does not in and of itself guarantee peace and political stability; it makes them possible. But a long way yet has to be traveled.
PORTER: We’ve seen David Trimble and Gerry Adams meet. How’s that personal relationship going?
MITCHELL: I think it’s going well. It’s difficult for both of them politically. They represent communities which have a long history of hostility, a long history of violence. And as I said earlier, not a long history of conciliation and compromise. And so they’re feeling their way. But I commend both of them for the effort that they’re making and for what I hope will be just the first step in a process that will culminate in a full-fledged and democratic society.
PORTER: President Clinton made a high profile trip to Northern Ireland. What effect did that have on the process?
MITCHELL: It had a very positive effect on the process. The President was very well received in Northern Ireland and in Ireland: large, enthusiastic crowds. The reality is that he made a key difference in Northern Ireland. Without him there probably would not have been a peace agreement. The people there know that and they’re grateful for it. And so they were very warm and receptive to him. I traveled with him on the entire visit.
PORTER: Give us any flavor of what the reception was like for him? We saw on television the big crowds in Limerick and…
MITCHELL: Large crowds; a lot of enthusiasm; and a recognition, as I said, of what the instrumental role he’s played in the process. Also, gratitude for what he was willing to do. I accompanied the President and Mrs. Clinton to Omagh,?? the scene of the last atrocity, the most recent—and I hope what will be the last atrocity—and met with the victims and the families of those who had been killed in that terrible explosion. And it was an extremely moving event. You could not help but be deeply and emotionally moved. And the President handled it very well. The families were extremely grateful to him for making the effort to come there, to talk with them. And he spent quite a long time there with them; I think an hour or two, talking with each one. They shared their grief and many other things and so I think there was general recognition that he’s the only American president ever to have gone to Northern Ireland while in office and he did it twice and they really appreciate that.
PORTER: On September 11th, President Clinton welcomed members of the Irish-American community to the South Lawn of the White House to celebrate success in Northern Ireland. He expressed deep gratitude to George Mitchell.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: He can say whatever he wants about my phone calls and my meetings and my—someone had to run that deal. When he started running that peace process the people on opposite sides literally did not sit in the same room and listen to each other while the other one was talking. George’s first big deal was to make sure that people stayed in the same room while their counterparts were talking and actually listened. That’s how far we have come. That was the distance that was traveled between the beginning and the Good Friday Agreement. And I don’t think—[applause]—I literally—[applause]—I cannot imagine another person who could have done it. I would never have had the patience to sit there and do it. I cannot imagine.
And you know, for years George would hardly speak to me. [laughter] He said, “You know, I got out of public life, I left the Senate, I want to have a private life, I want to have a family, and then you stuck me with this.” [laughter] I told him one time—he mentioned this and I don’t know, I said, I said, “George, you know the title of that old country song about the guy that makes a bad divorce settlement? She got the gold mine and I got the shaft? You got the shaft!” [laughter] We go everywhere, you know, people clap for me and George would have to back and sit in the meeting where people didn’t talk to each other, you know. [laughter] He’d have to wait for days on end to see if people would sneeze in the right way. [laughter] It was unbelievable. [laughter] Finally, on this last trip to Ireland, George Mitchell finally said “Thank you, I’m glad I got to do it.” After three years. [applause, cheering] And I appreciate it. [loud cheering and applause]
MITCHELL: It was very generous of him. And I appreciate that. A lot has been written and said about the American role in the process. And it clearly was important. But in the end I think the real heroes are the political leaders of Northern Ireland. Men and women who took not just their careers but their lives, put them on the line in this process, with no history of compromise and negotiation, really came together and rose to the occasion. It wasn’t easy. It took two years of negotiation, often bitter, insulting, invective, and hard-to-control process. But in the end they rose the occasion and a lot of people helped. I did, the President helped, Prime Minister Blair was great; so was Prime Minister Ahearn. But in the end it was the people of Northern Ireland and their political leaders who deserve the credit.
PORTER: Mmm hmm. You mentioned the Omagh bombing; October, or excuse me, August 15th—28 people killed, 220 people injured. What impact did that have on the process?
MITCHELL: I hope very much that out of that terrible evil will come some good. As does occur from time to time in human affairs. It was a truly senseless, brutal, barbaric act. And I think if anyone could have been in that room with me when I accompanied the President and Mrs. Clinton to meet with the families and the survivors, to see what this destruction was. A lovely young girl, Claire Gallagher, 15 years old, a piano player, had both of her eyes blown away in the blast. And there she sat with two large patches over her eyes; she’ll never see again, trying very hard to be courageous about it. A young man, Michael Monohan, 33 years old, his wife, who was pregnant with twins, was killed. Their daughter, 18 months old, was killed; and the wife’s mother was killed. Three generations wiped out in a one horrifying moment.
I think the widespread revulsion at the act all across the island of Ireland may mean that it’s the last of such acts. It’s impossible to say that with certainty of course. No society in human history has ever been able to attain the absence of violence completely. We certainly haven’t in our own country; we’re very proud to be Americans and yet we recognize we live in a very violent society. So I think it’s not realistic to expect there’ll never be an act of violence in Northern Ireland. But this type of politically-motivated violence, I hope is behind us.
PORTER: You mentioned the fact that so much of this violence is multi-generational. I mean, it goes back. I, you know what your father and your grandfather and your great-grandfather, how they were affected and the pain that they felt. And you know, or you think you know, who to blame for that as well. Is there any way to break that cycle?
MITCHELL: The agreement is the first step toward breaking that cycle. I spent three-and-a-half years in Northern Ireland. I came to know, to admire, to like, the people very much. I feel very much a part of them. They have great qualities. They also have what I think are some problems. And one of them is such an intense knowledge of and reliance on history that it’s often almost as though they were looking to the past. And a highly developed sense of grievance. The well-publicized and extremely emotional funeral is a part of the social fabric there. And the political fabric there. And there is this tremendous sense of grievance. One of the delegates said to me early in the talks, and I’ll never forget this, he said—and he half-jokingly, but he was serious—he said, “Senator, if you are to understand us you must realize that we in Northern Ireland would drive a hundred miles out of our way to receive an insult.” And in fact, there’s something to that. There’s a sort of a looking for insult approach to problems. Somebody once said if you say to someone, if a Catholic says to Protestant or vice-versa, “Have a nice day,” the other one says “Well don’t tell me what to do with my day.” That sort of thing. It’s an exaggeration to make a point, but I think that the agreement and especially the younger people, want, look forward. That you can never forget the sorrows of the past; you have to keep them always in mind and particularly remember the victims. But you can’t let the past become the future. You have to finally make a break with the past and say “We’re going to live for the next century, not for what happened in the last century.” And I really believe it’s the young people who are the key to a peaceful future in Northern Ireland.
PORTER: We’re talking in this edition of Common Ground with former U.S. Senator George Mitchell about his crucial role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
PORTER: In Guatemala we saw a Truth Commission; in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Any need for such a commission in Northern Ireland?
MITCHELL: That’s really up to them. Conflicts have some things in common but each is unique. And I believe one of the reasons that I was able to be helpful is that I did not go over there with the attitude that the United States is going to tell anybody what to do, that we’re going to draw lines on a map or dictate provisions. I did draft the final agreement but as I told the participants, it was based upon their views. I said to them, “What would you like to see in this?” And each of them gave me what they would like to see in it and so I took those and put them all together in a way that I thought made some balanced sense. That they then spent three days changing it and rearranging it and renegotiating it. But essentially the provisions of the agreement arise from the people themselves and from their political representatives. And it is they and they alone who will have to make the decisions about how they’re going to achieve reconciliation.
PORTER: We were talking about the Omagh bombing. This group, the Real IRA, who are they? They claimed responsibility?
MITCHELL: Yes. I don’t know on any inside knowledge basis other than what I’ve read in the newspapers. They appear to be a relatively small group of people, fewer than a hundred, who have opposed the peace process from the beginning because it doesn’t give them immediately 100% of what they want. There are people like that on both sides. And they appear to be committed to violence as a way of achieving their political objectives. What Omagh makes clear is that violence won’t solve the problems of Northern Ireland; it’ll only make them worse. Now they have declared a cessation of their operations. I hope very much that it is the end. The Irish government and the British government have passed strong new measures to combat terrorism and terrorist organizations like this. And so my hope is that they’ve come to realize that their path is the wrong one for the people of Northern Ireland. It’s not wanted. You see, the significance of the vote on May 22nd is that it stripped away the pretense that these terrorist organizations have, that they’re speaking for their communities. Eighty-five percent of the people of Ireland said “we want this agreement.” And 95% of the Nationalists or Catholics. Now this group, the real IRA, purporting to speak for the Nationalists or Catholics, use violence when the agreement explicitly repudiated violence. So they don’t speak for anyone. They don’t have any mandate of any kind and it is false and untrue for them to make the claim that they speak for or represent their community. And I hope very much that the atrocity at Omagh is the end, finally, of the troubles.
PORTER: Are there more Real IRA’s out there?
MITCHELL: There’s a long history of schism and fracturing and new entities and organizations being created at some time; hard to keep track of them. You remember the old American saying, “you can’t tell the players without a scorecard.” That’s certainly been the case over there. On both sides. The acronyms proliferate. It’s like an alphabet soup when you discuss the politics over there because of all these organizations, each of which with a, with an acronym. I don’t think you can rule out the possibility. There are many people over there, not large in numbers, but still in, in a commitment to violence, who are prepared to use violence. And remember, we all benefit from technology. Look at the amazing thing, here you and I are sitting in a small room at The University of Iowa and this will be broadcast widely at some point in the near future. Kitchens, cell telephones, communications; well, keep in mind that nowhere has technology developed faster than in the act of killing one another. It is now easier, it requires less skill, it requires less in the way of resources, it requires fewer numbers, to kill large numbers of other people. That’s one of the realities with which we have to live on a world-wide basis and it’s just as true in Northern Ireland and perhaps even more so than in other places.
And so one of the things that I tried hard to do, and believe I did in Northern Ireland, was to establish clearly and say repeatedly publicly, that there must be a policy of not giving in to terrorist acts of violence. You cannot let the men of violence control the agenda and control the future. And I, I worked hard at keeping the peace process going even in spite of repeated atrocities, killings, assassinations, bombings, murders, that went on all that time. Because I felt it was essential to do that. And I think it does pay off in the end.
PORTER: Well, that leads right to my next question about weapons. What’s the timetable for the major organizations at least to give up their weapons.
MITCHELL: The agreement provides for the full decommissioning of paramilitary organizations within two years. About five months have since elapsed so the completion must occur within a two year period after the agreement. I hope very much that it will begin right away. I don’t see why these organizations can’t give up some of their arms. And I hope very much that they will do so. Decommissioning of arms was an indispensable part of the negotiations. The participants themselves said that. It was an indispensable part of the agreement and I think it will be an indispensable part of the implementation of the agreement.
PORTER: Can an organization, can a representative of an organization that is not committed to giving up their weapons serve in the new government structures? Is there a link between the two?
MITCHELL: That’s to be decided by the participants and the governments. It is, as you know from asking the question, a very difficult and controversial one. But it’s one of many. This is not going to be an easy downhill glide for anybody in this process. That, dozens of questions like it. For example, the release of prisoners. That’s now begun. For example the commission on policing, which will report next year. For yet another example, a commission on the criminal justice system will report next year. Extremely emotional and controversial and difficult issues. They’re all going to have to work that out. That’s part of the process of democracy. That’s how you get things done. You sit down with the other side and you argue and you battle—not physically, but with words and arguments, and eventually you work out a compromise. I think it’s going to happen here because the will is there, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy.
PORTER: You mentioned earlier the new anti-terrorism laws. Some people call them draconian. Do you have any comment on them? What do you think about these laws? Are they effective? Or will they be effective?
MITCHELL: I don’t know that and I’m not certain that I or any other American ought to be telling the people of Ireland or Britain what kind of laws they should pass to combat terrorism in their society. They’ve suffered from it for a very long time. I will say this: I got to know Prime Minister Blair and Prime Minister Ahearn very well. I have great confidence in them. They’re men of ability, men of judgment, men of action. And the people there clearly want to put a stop to these terrorist acts.
PORTER: The Good Friday Agreement has some specific human rights provisions in it. Can you tell us about those? And the process by which those got included.
MITCHELL: It was a process of bargaining and negotiation, day and night for several days. Just as about what you would expect. People going back and forth, “Well want this,” and “I want that,” and “Will you agree to this if I agree to that?”, and back and forth. I think it’s clear that in the period following the partition of Ireland in the early 1920s until the British government resumed direct rule over Northern Ireland in the 1970s, that it was a government which was dominated by the majority Protestants and a society in which there was an active pattern of discrimination against the minority Catholics. The overwhelming majority of Protestants will now say, “Look, we don’t want to go back to that. We recognize that’s a thing of the past. We are prepared to have a society in which there can be full equality.” What, the phrase they use is “parity of treatment ” and “mutual respect and tolerance.” And the agreement establishes that as the objective and as the appropriate means of solving their problems in that society. Now, it’s like any other society. You have a wide spectrum of views. And there are certainly some in both communities who are dissatisfied with it. For one group it goes too far, another it doesn’t go far enough. But I think that there is a genuine recognition that there, if there is to be a stable peace and genuine reconciliation, there must be equality of treatment, mutual respect and tolerance between the two communities, and I believe that will occur.
PORTER: I was looking on the world wide web over the last few days at some newspaper stories; saw one in the Belfast newspaper. The headline was “Northern Ireland Assembly Enters Phase of ‘Normal Politics.’” That phrase ‘normal politics’ must sound pretty good to you.
MITCHELL: On the day we reached the agreement I had been up for nearly two days, about forty hours without sleep and had very little sleep the week before, so I was quite tired and it was very emotional. I’d been for two years with these men and women. And everybody there recognized the significance of what they’d done. And I told the delegates that the reaching of this agreement was for me the realization of a dream. A dream I’d held for three-and-a-half years there, through many difficult and dark periods when it looked as though progress were impossible. Now that it had been achieved I told them I have a new dream. And my new dream is to come back to Northern Ireland in a few years. I have a young son, to bring him back with me, to go sit in the gallery of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and to watch and to listen to the debates. And in the debates they will talk about health care and education and fisheries and agriculture and tourism and environmental protection and all the ordinary agenda items in a democratic society. And I told them my dream is as we sit there, there will be no talk of war, because the war will have bee over. There won’t be any talk of peace because peace will be taken for granted. And on the day that peace is taking for granted in Northern Ireland, then I will feel fulfilled.
PORTER: That is former U.S. Senator George Mitchell. Mitchell serves as Chairman of the International Commission on Disarmament in Northern Ireland. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
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