George Mitchell (centre) with Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast on April 10, 1998. PA Archive

Column ‘Listening to a dull speech in Stormont was the happiest day of my life’

Senator George Mitchell, who oversaw the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement, recounts his experiences planting the first seeds of peace.

I RECALL CLEARLY my first day in Northern Ireland, 17 years ago. I saw for the first time the huge wall which physically separates the communities in the heart of Belfast. Thirty feet high, topped in places with barbed wire. It’s a stark reminder of the intensity and the duration of the conflict. Ironically, it’s called the Peace Line.

On that first morning I met with Nationalists on their side of the wall; in the afternoon with Unionists on their side. The messages had not been co-ordinated, but I was struck by how similar the messages were.

In Belfast, they told me with charts, graphs, maps and very powerful testimony, there is a high correlation between unemployment and violence. They told me that where men and women have no opportunity, no hope, they are more likely to take the path of violence.

As I sat and listened to them, I thought I could just as easily be in Chicago or Calcutta, or Johannesburg or in the Middle East. Despair is fuel for instability.

Hope is essential for peace and stability. Men and women everywhere need incomes to support their families and they need the satisfaction of doing something worthwhile and meaningful in their lives.

‘Economic prosperity will flow from, and contribute to, lasting peace’

The conflict in Northern Ireland obviously was not exclusively or even primarily economic; it involved religion, national identity, territory. Unionists tend to identify with and want to remain part of the United Kingdom; Nationalists tend to identify with, and want to become part of, a United Ireland.

The Good Friday acknowledges the legitimacy of both aspirations – but it requires that advocacy for either position be exclusively through peaceful and democratic means, and it commits all to the democratic principle that a change in status can occur only with the freely-given consent of the people of Northern Ireland. And the agreement makes the possibility that economic prosperity will flow from, and contribute to, lasting peace.

Economic growth, the creation of jobs, opportunity for every member of society – no matter what his or her background, no matter his or her family’s status or wealth – is the most important element in building strong and peaceful societies.

I’m not objective: I favour the people of Northern Ireland. Having spent years with them I’ve come to like and admire them. While they can be quarrelsome, and often very quick to take offence, they’re also warm and generous, energetic and productive.

The very first day of the meetings, when David Irvine – a wonderful man and a powerful contributor to peace – said to me: “Senator, if you are to be of any use of us, there’s one thing you must know.” I said, “What is it?”

He said, “We in Northern Ireland would drive 100 miles out of our way to receive an insult.” I thought he was kidding, but nobody else in the room laughed. So I took it seriously.

An old dream, and a new one

When the agreement was reached, at about 6 o’clock on the evening of April 10, 1998, we had been in negotiations for nearly two years and continuously for the last few days. We were all elated and exhausted.

In my parting comments to my colleagues, I told them that the Agreement was, for me, the realisation of a dream that had sustained me for what up until then had been three-and-a-half years, the longest and most difficult years of my life.

Now, I told them, I have a new dream – and it was that I hoped to return to Northern Ireland some day with my young son, Andrew, who had been born during the negotiations.

I told them that I would take my son and travel the country, taking in the sights and sounds of a beautiful land, and then on a rainy afternoon we would drive to Stormont and sit quietly in the visitors’ gallery in the Northern Ireland Assembly. There, I hoped, we would watch and listen as the members debated the ordinary issues of life in a democratic society: education, healthcare, agriculture, tourism.

There would be no talk war, for the war would long have been over. There would be no talk of peace, for peace would by then be taken for granted. On that day – the day on which peace is taken for granted in Northern Ireland – I will be fulfilled and people of peace and goodwill everywhere will rejoice.

I spoke those words 14 years ago, and I’m happy to tell you just a few weeks ago I made that journey with my son. We spent a week travelling all across Northern Ireland; we sat in the visitors’ gallery at the Northern Ireland Assembly – the only thing different is that for a week it didn’t rain, which I found extraordinary, given all the time I had spent in Northern Ireland – but as we sat in the gallery, listening to the Northern Ireland Assembly debate, we heard a calm, a peaceful, and a democratic debate.

We heard a minister report to the assembly on a conference he had just attended. It was as dry and dust, and as boring as only a government report can be.

But it was music to my ears, and I thought it wonderful to hear.

And it made it, truly, one of the best days of my life.

Adapted from a speech given to the Oireachtas all-party committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

George Mitchell was a Democratic senator representing Maine from 1980 to 1995, serving as Senator Majority Leader for the last six of those years. He oversaw the negotiations which led to the signature of the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast in April 1998. He later served as Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, and as the US envoy to the Arab-Israeli peace process.

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