George Mitchell had spent almost two years leading peace talks with warring parties in Northern Ireland, adopting a strategy of just asking an open-ended question that would allow one side to vent.
“Mostly, it was listening on my part,” the former Senate majority leader recalled. But eventually, when the talks started to go sideways in early 1998, Mitchell had to compel the 10 different parties to move from their positions. So he imposed a deadline that forced action: Good Friday.
“I had no authority to impose it,” he confided in a 70-minute telephone interview. But he had acquired something intangible through all those patient months of hearing them vent about grievances and murders carried out falsely in the name of their respective Gods. “They all really trusted me.”
An outsider asked by the U.S. president, Irish prime minister and British prime minister to lead the talks, Mitchell helped end the sectarian violence that had dominated the region in the previous three decades, when more than 3,500 died in violence attributed to “the Troubles.”
In the 25 years since, just 155 have died in this type of violence, a success story that President Biden, former president Bill Clinton and many other American officials have flown across the Atlantic to help celebrate this anniversary. In an unexpected twist, Northern Ireland is now a scene of relative stability while the United States finds its democratic institutions under political assault and widespread killings happen nearly weekly.
“I know better than most how hard democracy can be at times. We in the United States have firsthand experience, how fragile even long-standing democratic institutions can be. You saw what happened on January the 6th in my country,” Biden said Wednesday at Ulster University in Belfast.
Mitchell called the deal a “political compromise” and noted that it “did not resolve all the issues.” Indeed, the regional government has been shut down since last year over a dispute connected to Brexit, and the religious tensions linger even as the violence has subsided. The anniversary markers this month are attempts to restore Northern Ireland’s upward trajectory as much as to look back on the deal.
Mitchell, now 89, has been battling leukemia since 2020 but got medical clearance to fly off on Saturday for Belfast ahead of a conference next week celebrating the anniversary.
Out of office for almost 30 years, he is loath to give advice to today’s political leaders, but he believes that Washington could learn quite a bit from what took place in those Northern Ireland talks and how so many factions sealed a deal that changed that region’s future.
“There has to be patience, there has to be a willingness to listen,” Mitchell said. “Listening is a sign of respect. It says I value you and I value your views.”
Instead, most members of Congress and presidential candidates are trying to gain attention and levels of fame through cable news appearances and social media pages.
“It’s all shouting,” Mitchell said.
That’s exactly how Northern Ireland’s leaders behaved in January 1995 when President Clinton asked Mitchell, who had just retired from the Senate representing Maine, to take up a part-time mission of setting up a trade meeting in Northern Ireland a little later that spring.
The Protestant majority had several factions, including paramilitary units that carried out attacks in Catholic neighborhoods, particularly those with suspected large concentrations of soldiers in the separatist Irish Republican Army.
The trade conference went well enough that Clinton coaxed Mitchell into taking on a more direct role, as his envoy to the region. “Well, they like you over there, I’d like you to continue,” the president told him.
Neither Clinton nor Mitchell had a natural inclination toward the issue, even though both had some Irish blood. But Clinton seized on the issue out of political necessity during a tough presidential election season in 1992 ahead of New York’s primary, with Irish Catholics a key voting bloc.
Mitchell’s father was born in Ireland but adopted by a Maine family that raised him Maronite Catholic. When Clinton gave him this task, Mitchell had never traveled to Northern Ireland and had made just one two-day visit to Ireland, at the tail end of a congressional delegation trip, so he could visit Waterville, the coastal Irish town that gave its name to Mitchell’s childhood home in the middle of Maine.
Unlike his Irish Catholic contemporaries in the Senate, such as Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), Mitchell had paid little attention to the Northern Ireland dispute during his Senate tenure.
So, upon taking his new assignment from Clinton, he embarked on what he calls “a personal education program” of Irish and British history, reading about three dozen books and studying postmortems of previous failed peace talks.
One reason kept coming up: Those affiliated with groups carrying out violence were forbidden from participating in the talks and therefore kept carrying out violence.
By the spring of 1996, Mitchell got most sides to agree on six principles that talks would seek to uphold, including the eventual disarming of the paramilitary groups and renouncing violence. Then formal talks began with all parties, at which point Mitchell and his staff became formal employees of the Irish and British governments. (He did not draw a salary.)
Ian Paisley, a leader of the pro-London Democratic Unionist Party, didn’t trust Mitchell at first, seeing him as a Clinton hand. Sinn Féin’s leader, Gerry Adams, had been granted a visa to travel to the United States two years earlier, a controversial move, but his political party’s association with the IRA meant he had to hew closer to the side demanding unification with Ireland.
Mitchell’s first message focused on how any deal had to come from those leaders in Northern Ireland; it would not be something that Clinton or British Prime Minister John Major could impose. “If ever there is to be an agreement, it has to be your agreement,” he told them.
During the fall of 1996, Mitchell went to a retreat with Clinton ahead of his debates against the Republican presidential nominee Robert J. Dole. Mitchell played the part of his former Senate rival Dole in debate prep. A dinner with the Clintons turned into a surprise discussion entirely about the peace talks, not about the pending U.S. election.
“I first got involved in the Irish issue because of the politics of New York, but it became one of the great passions of my presidency,” Clinton wrote in his memoir.
While some senatorial traits came in handy, Mitchell also leaned a bit on his brief stint as a federal judge in the late 1970s. He would not accept any social outings with any of the parties in the Belfast talks: no dinners, no soccer matches, no chance at appearing to look as if he were playing favorites.
At certain points, he issued several-page “rulings” as if he were a judge making pretrial declarations, something the opposing sides enjoyed. The disputes centered on how to create a power-sharing deal between the Protestant majority and Catholic minority that would be trusted and defuse the bombings that had become so common.
Finally, on Good Friday in 1998, David Trimble called Mitchell to say that the Protestant parties were on board. “We’re ready to do the business,” Trimble, who would become the first minister of the newly formed government, told Mitchell.
At that moment, old Senate leader instincts kicked in. He called all the parties and immediately demanded they arrive to sign the deal, rather than waiting any longer and risking doubts.
“When you get the votes, you should hold the vote,” he said.
A couple of months later, voters in Northern Ireland and Ireland approved the pact in referendums, creating the new government. As Biden noted, the region’s economy has doubled in size since the agreement, with 30,000 jobs provided by U.S. companies investing there.
“Northern Ireland is a churn of creativity, art, poetry, theater,” Biden said during his just-completed visit.
The interconnected economy of Northern Ireland and Ireland has become a key issue in the post-Brexit talks about a new trade deal between London and Washington. The bipartisan U.S. leadership has vowed that any trade deal with London will require the U.K. leaders to honor every word of the Good Friday Agreement.
Mitchell has retired from taking on high-profile roles or tough assignments like investigating steroid use in Major League Baseball and serving as the Obama administration’s special envoy to the Middle East. He now splits time between homes in Florida and Maine.
Whether it’s dealing with Irish paramilitaries or congressional malcontents, Mitchell finds solace in a compliment that one of the Protestant political leaders gave him.
“‘He listened us to agreement,’” Mitchell recalled him saying. “That’s a great line.”