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Should Bill Clinton or George Mitchell step in to break the Northern Ireland deadlock?

Both men are in Ireland this week to mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

George Mitchell at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin today
George Mitchell at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin today
Image: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

COULD BILL CLINTON or former US Senator George Mitchell be the mediators the Northern Ireland talks need to finally get the show back on the road?

Both men are in Ireland this week to mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and both men have put each other’s names forward for the job in the last few months (though it must be noted, it appears to be in jest).

The landmark 35-page deal brought about an end to the violence of the Troubles, but with the stalemate of the Northern Ireland Executive dragging on for over 13 months now, some are questioning just how well it is working. However, Mitchell – the man charged with keeping everyone’s heads cool during the talks in 1998 – rejected claims that the agreement was getting in the way of political progress in Northern Ireland.

Insults, refusals to even shake each others hands, and difficulties even getting people in the same room.

These were just some of the challenges Mitchell said he had to deal with twenty years ago when he was chairing the Good Friday Agreement talks.

Before any discussions even got off the ground, the senator had to sit outside the room as both unionists and republicans debated whether they judged Mitchell to be fit to be the mediator of the talks.

Ultimately, both sides agreed that he was worthy.

Events to mark the anniversary have been under way for some time now.

Former US president Bill Clinton suggested at an event in Capitol Hill last month – with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald in attendance – that Mitchell should be asked to reconvene talks in Northern Ireland in order to get the institutions working again.

This evening, TheJournal.ie asked Mitchell if he would ever consider taking Clinton’s advice and get involved in the talks to get the Northern Ireland Executive back up and running.

“I think he should consider it,” the former senator replied, jokingly with a laugh.

At the same event in Washington DC last month, Mitchell spoke passionately about what politicians can achieve when they put their mind to it. He said the Good Friday Agreement was a historic moment in Northern Irish history – but he said it is up to today’s leaders to achieve its goals.

He urged those politicians in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Britain and the European Union to reflect on their responsibilities and to look back twenty years to what their predecessors were able to do.

While Mitchell indicated today that he won’t be taking up the role as mediator between the parties in the North, he urged the leaders of Northern Ireland and the Irish and British governments to carry on the work started more than 20 years ago.

While the signing of the agreement was historic, he said the work didn’t stop there.

“I think they should rekindle the spirit that led to the Good Friday Agreement and do what is best for all the people of Northern Ireland,” he said, adding that he did not think it would be wise for him, as someone no longer involved in the day-to-day events of life in the North, to “impose his view” as to how to resolve the particular stalemate.

With talk of the establishment of an inter-governmental conference to break the deadlock in the North, Mitchell was asked if he would support such a move. Again, not wanting to wade in on matters he is no longer involved in, he said:

“This is a decision for the leaders of the United Kingdom, Ireland and Northern Ireland to take. I don’t think they need second-guessing by me.”

Reflecting on the talks 20 years ago, Mitchell told a crowd at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin this evening that the talks up to the agreement being signed had relentlessly been filled with “invective, insult, repetition beyond human endurance, but without progress”.

The day the agreement was signed was just one day of success which had been preceded by “700 days of failure”, he said.

He told the sold-out event how the birth of his son, Andrew, drove him to keep going with the talks. Mitchell said he watched his son sleep after the first day of his life and imagined what his son’s life would be like had he been born in Northern Ireland.

He rang up his staff in Belfast and asked them to find out how many newborns had been delivered that day. He was told that 61 children had been born in the North on 16 October 1997, the same day as his son.

“My wife and I had such high hopes and dreams for our son. Surely the parents of those 61 babies had the same hopes and dreams. Shouldn’t those 61 children in Northern Ireland have the same chance in life that we wanted for our son?” he said he asked himself that night.

SenGeorgeMitchell08 Former senator George Mitchell with, a video portrait of David Trimble at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. Source: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

The question he said people must ask now, however, is: “Can we leave the Troubles behind? Can we summon the vision and the patience needed to build a peaceful and prosperous future?”

Is Mitchell disappointed in the state of affairs in Northern Ireland politics today? Not at all.

“I think Northern Ireland is a much better, much safer, greater place than it was twenty years ago, so I’m not disappointed at all. Do they have problems, yes of course. We’re here in Dublin. Do the people of Dublin have problem. Yes. Do the people in the United States have problems? Yes. I think we should look at the whole picture. Northern Ireland is a much better place because of the actions of leaders twenty years ago. Problems remain. Problems are inevitable in every society.”

He concluded by stating that no one should “take for granted the absence of violence in Northern Ireland”.

“No society should assume that they don’t have to do anything and things will be alright. It takes leadership, strong, effective, committed leadership. That is what I hope we will see in Northern Ireland.”

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