April 10, 1998
An agreement to bring peace to Northern Ireland was announced today. Protestants and Catholics will share governance of the contested province. After this background report, Elizabeth Farnsworth talks to the chairman of the peace talks, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And now a Newsmaker interview with former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who in June of 1996 was appointed chairman of the peace negotiations by the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Mitchell's close association with Northern Ireland began after his resignation from the Senate in 1995, when President Clinton made him special adviser on economic initiatives in Northern Ireland. I spoke with him a little while ago.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
April 10, 1998
A background report on the Irish peace accord.
Will peace last in Northern Ireland?
April 9, 1998
Irish peace talks go down to the wire.
March 17, 1998
P.M. Bertie Ahern discusses efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland.
August 4, 1997
A Newsmaker interview with George Mitchell.
July 21, 1997
An IRA ceasefire prompts discussion.
February 12, 1996
An IRA bomb shatters the 18 month ceasefire.
The Greening of the White House: a look at U.S. - Northern Ireland relations.
Northern Ireland Peace Talks.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the Europe.
The Irish Times newspaper.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you for being with us, Senator Mitchell, and congratulations
GEORGE MITCHELL: Thanks very much, Elizabeth.
A frantic 24 hours.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: One of the participants in the negotiations said today that the last 24 hours has been "frantic." Were they? Tell us about the last day.
GEORGE MITCHELL: Well, it was frantic. It was very difficult. We were up all night. I haven't slept for a couple of days--negotiating. It's very difficult when you have got 10 participants in the talks. We had two governments and eight political parties, dozens of issues, and it's hard even to keep track of all of them, let alone reach consensus on them. Every time you change a word one place you have to clear it with nine other people. I must say that Prime Minister Blair and the Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, deserve great credit. They've been there for a couple of days, stayed up all night, worked very hard. President Clinton made some key calls at important times, and things just seemed to come together, although there were a lot of ups and downs. And even as late as this afternoon the outcome was uncertain.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How hard was it? You dealt with your fellow Senators. How would you compare this to dealing with them?
GEORGE MITCHELL: This is much tougher. There's a long history of political violence here. There's very little history of political negotiation and compromise. When we started a couple of years ago, some of these men and women had never spoken, had never been in the same room. Although 10 political parties were eligible in the talks, at no time in the nearly two years of discussions did we ever have all 10 in the same room at the same time. We constantly had people walking out in disgust or anger, others coming back, sort of shuffling in and out. Some people were thrown out for various reasons and then came back. It's very, very difficult to do, by far the toughest thing I've ever been involved in.
Will this agreement hold?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There have been other attempts that failed to make peace in Northern Ireland. Why do you think these negotiations succeeded, where those failed?
GEORGE MITCHELL: I think the overriding reason is that the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant alike, don't want to go back to the violence and the bitterness of the past. They have their differences. They're very deep. There's a lot of hatred here. But they don't want to go back to the kind of life they had during the time that was known as the "troubles," where assassination and bombing and mostly anxiety and fear hung over this beautiful place like a heavy unyielding fog. There are a lot of other factors too. The cooperation of the British and Irish governments in recent years has been far better and far different than it ever was. This process was constructed by the British and Irish governments. They were its sponsors, its organizers. They were the ones who deserved credit for putting it together.
The presence of the prime ministers was critical.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And in the last week was the constant involvement--or at least since Tuesday--of the two prime ministers really important in getting everybody to this final agreement?
GEORGE MITCHELL: It was critical. It really would not have been done without them. And one other point, which comes just before that, was the decision by Prime Minister Blair made shortly after he took office last year to impose a deadline. These talks really would have gone on forever without a deadline. And while there's always a risk if you create a precipice someone might fall off, I believe that was critical. This forced a decision. It's just too easy to defer tough decisions unless you come up against a wall. And two weeks ago when I set the deadline of midnight Thursday, I said that we're going to stay until we finish one way or the other. We'll either get an agreement, or we'll fail to get an agreement. But the talks are going to end. Fortunately, they ended the right way.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Senator, what do you think was the most important thing you did, if you had to pick something in your character or in the way that you talked or dealt with people, what would be the most important thing?
GEORGE MITCHELL: Well, although the talks were very long, over a two-year period, and I was often frustrated during that time, looking back, I think it probably helped me because I was able to get to know these people really well. They've all become friends, in fact. And I think over time they began to trust me more, respect me more. And I could sense and feel a constant deepening of my relationship with them that helped me toward the end. I think the second thing is that you really have to know what people are thinking themselves in order to come up with solutions, that is, the willingness to genuinely listen and put yourself in the other person's shoes. Patience--I listened to endless, hundreds, probably thousands of hours of discussion, much of which I could recite by heart back to them. And they liked that. And finally, I think my own political background was helpful. These are all politicians. They're members of parliament, mayors, councilors. They face the same pressures that elected politicians face everywhere. And in this particular case I recognized what they confronted. Their community is telling them settle this thing, but they're also telling them settle it on our terms. And I've been through that myself, understand the ambiguities and conflicts of public messages, and I think I was able to sympathize with them in a way that they appreciated.
"Bill Clinton deserves a great deal of credit for this. "
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And how important was President Clinton's involvement?
GEORGE MITCHELL: Very important. Bill Clinton deserves a great deal of credit for this. He's the only American president ever to have visited Northern Ireland while in office. He made Northern Ireland a high priority on the American agenda for the first time, and he became deeply engaged. This morning at 3:15 AM Washington Time, 8:15 AM here, I talked to the president on the phone for a half hour. I kept saying to him, listen, you ought to go to sleep, it's 3:15 in the morning, 3:20 in the morning, 3:30 in the morning. No, he said, I'm really interested, I want to understand the situation, give me your assessment. Today, he made several calls to participants at critical times. He really is very helpful. The people over here understand his interest. They appreciate it, and they value his contribution.
The agreement from the Protestant's point of view.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Looking at the agreement, what's in the agreement for the Protestants?
GEORGE MITCHELL: They first gain the enshrining of the principle of consent, which means there can be no change in the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, without the consent of a majority of the people here in a democratic election. That's very important. Second, the Irish constitution, the Republic of Ireland's constitution, which previously had what interpreted as a territorial claim, has been modified. Third, a Northern Ireland assembly, self-governance, which with Protestants in the majority, they'll be the majority there--all very, very important, major accomplishments from their perspective.
And the Catholics....
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What's in it for the Catholics?
GEORGE MITCHELL: Well, first of course the document expresses the concepts of tolerance, mutual respect, and equality of treatment throughout this society. That was not always the case. And that's what led to the most recent manifestation of the conflict. Second, what are called North-South institutions--the establishment of bodies, a ministerial council, headed by members of the assembly in the North and the parliament in the Republic of Ireland, and bodies to implement their policies that will begin cross-border cooperation over the entire island on a range of issues that are set forth in the agreement--tourism, development, transport--things of that type, something that nationalists have wanted for a very long time. There are a number of other issues as well but those are among the principal ones.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How did you deal with the fact that Sinn Fein would not meet with the Unionists, the Ulster Unionists, so that, for example, Gerry Adams and David Trimble could never meet face to face? Did you just have to go back and forth constantly between two rooms?
GEORGE MITCHELL: Well, it was the Ulster Unionists who wouldn't meet with Sinn Fein.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Excuse me, yes. That's what I meant to say, right.
GEORGE MITCHELL: Adams was very willing to meet with them. No, they sat in the same room. We sat around the same table. They just directed their comments through me when a question was asked. The comments--the answers would be addressed to me, and I would then relay them to the other person. There was a certain awkwardness to it, but much of the discussion was in private, where I met with one group or another. Even delegations that did speak with each other frequently chose to negotiate through a third person, through myself. So it was a common event for me to meet with Delegation A, find out what their view was on an issue, then talk to Delegation B, see how they felt about it. As I said earlier, one of the problems in a negotiation that involves 10 parties is you have to keep going around in a circle; you have to clear these modifications with a lot of people. So it's a common event that people talk through the chair in a situation like that.
The challenge of ratification.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The agreement has to be ratified in a referendum in the North and in Ireland in the South. Do you expect it to be ratified?
GEORGE MITCHELL: I sure hope so. I think it would be a terrible setback if it isn't. There will be a tough election campaign. There's a lot of opposition to any participation in the talks. Two of the ten eligible parties walked out of the talks when Sinn Fein walked in. And they are now actively campaigning in opposition. Before they even knew what the agreement was, they were against it. And now that the agreement is out, they'll surely be against that. And there are splits on the other side as well. So I it's going to be a tough campaign. I hope very much that it will pass. It's a critically important step I think to make clear that there is an alternative to violence to solve political problems. Much of the politics has been dominated by the view that you can't solve problems; you've got to use violence. And today's agreement and the implementation of these institutions that will follow will help to really debunk that and say to the men of violence your way is not the way, you're not going to solve the problems of Northern Ireland by violence, in fact, you'll only make them worse. Let's get into a democratic dialogue, inclusive, involving everyone.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And agreements have been made and then actually fallen apart in the implementation before, as I understand it. Could that happen with this one? In other words, the referendum approves the agreement, but then in trying to build the various organizations it falls apart?
GEORGE MITCHELL: Yes, it could. That's what happened to what is called the Sunning Deal Agreement in the early 70's, named after the place in which it was drafted. And that's certainly possible here. I don't think anyone should be under the illusion that this agreement reached today ends the conflict in Northern Ireland. The conflict is going to be there for very many years. But I think what will happen if things work out right is that they'll begin the process of working together. It's easier to build institutions, structures, than it is to build relationships among people. It takes a long time for mistrust to dissipate. It takes a long time for trust to be created and take hold. And the hope is that if you get a Northern Ireland assembly, if you get Catholics and Protestants working side by side on economic development or agriculture or something like that, you'll begin to develop the kind of trust that really is a necessary lubricant in any diverse democratic society.
"I think I'm the real beneficiary, because there's not much better in life than really helping someone."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Sen. Mitchell, you spent 22 months on this at a time when you had a new baby and other difficulties in your own private life. Why? Why did you stick with it? What was so important about this to you?
GEORGE MITCHELL: Well, I spent three and a half years in all in a variety of functions, and I didn't seek or expect it. One sort of led to the other in unexpected ways and the amounts of work involved increased all the time. I didn't have a plan to do it. It's really pretty simple. My mother was an immigrant, my father, the orphan son of immigrants. My father was a janitor, my mother a textile mill worker. I've been very, very lucky in my life. Many people have helped me. And I have a conviction that everybody, especially those who do well in our society, have an obligation where they can help others to meet that challenge. This came up, completely unexpectedly. I found in a position where I could be of help. That it happened to be in Ireland as opposed to some part of the United States was merely coincidence, and I felt I couldn't leave the challenge and frankly, although it has been very difficult, especially on my family, I feel glad I did it. I'm really pleased we accomplished something, and I think I'm the real beneficiary, because there's not much better in life than really helping someone and having a sense of accomplishment about it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Senator, congratulations again and thank you very much.
GEORGE MITCHELL: Thank you very much