BELFAST – When George Mitchell first arrived in Belfast, it was a bomb-damaged city surrounded by barbed wire.
This past week, the former U.S. senator visited a city at peace—a peace he played a key role in establishing—possibly for the last time.
Mitchell, who is 89 years old and undergoing leukaemia treatment, has missed three years’ worth of significant public events. But he was adamant that he would be in Belfast to commemorate the Good Friday Agreement’s 25th anniversary, the 1998 peace pact he helped to bring about.
I cherish Northern Ireland. I adore everyone here. I adore the location. To me, my wife, and my family, they have been exceptionally kind and welcoming, Mitchell told The Associated Press on Tuesday at Queen’s University Belfast. “It has special meaning for me because it could be my last time.”
Mitchell said the Good Friday Agreement has been “a remarkable success, but much more is needed” to fulfil its promise in light of the political upheaval that destroyed Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government and clouded the peace commemorations.
Nobody has ever claimed that this will permanently cure all of our issues, he said. “Because life is change, and every time you deal with an old problem, the seeds of a new problem are created.”
Prior to joining politics, Mitchell worked as a lawyer and judge. He served Maine’s U.S. Senate for 14 years, including six as the party’s majority leader. In 1995, President Bill Clinton asked Mitchell to serve as a special envoy to Northern Ireland.
Clinton claimed that Mitchell heard him describe it as a “easy little part-time job” that wouldn’t require much of his attention.
Clinton said on Monday, “He’s been reminding me for more than 25 years now of how misleading I was about that little part-time job I asked him to accept.
When Mitchell assumed his position, “The Troubles,” a conflict involving British loyalist paramilitaries, Irish republican militants, and British military, had broken out in Northern Ireland at the end of the 1960s. In explosions and shootings, more than 3,600 persons, mainly civilians, were killed.
Over the course of five years, Mitchell presided over three different rounds of peace negotiations, steadfastly encouraging and cajoling Northern Ireland’s rival parties towards amity despite walkouts, altercations, and murderous attacks that imperilled the process.
According to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, “George was this soothing salve in the fury of Northern Ireland politics. He cultivated the ideal environment for people to interact with one another.
An deal was struck on April 10, 1998, Good Friday, ending direct British rule and forcing paramilitaries to lay down their weapons. It also created a power-sharing unionist-nationalist government for Northern Ireland.
After 25 years, Northern Ireland has seen significant change, with Belfast’s gleaming glass structures serving as a symbol of the region’s prosperity and peace. Deep rifts still exist, and the working-class areas that took the brunt of the violence are still impoverished and have few possibilities.
Large portions of the population, according to Mitchell, “remain without growth, opportunity, better jobs, better lives, and, most importantly, better opportunities for their children.”
The most recent crisis to affect power-sharing was the main unionist party’s walkout, which resulted in Northern Ireland being more than a year without a functioning administration. Restoring the functioning of the Belfast government, according to Mitchell, is crucial.
“The people of Northern Ireland deserve and are entitled to self-government,” he declared. “And only the political figures involved in resolving the problems can fix it.
“They must exhibit the same bravery and foresight that their forebears did 25 years ago, when the stakes were much higher and the risks much greater. Additionally, it doesn’t appear possible to interpret the initial “No” as the final “No.” You must persist and devise a strategy for persuading individuals to reach a compromise.
President Barack Obama named Mitchell a special envoy for Middle East peace in 2009 in the hopes that Mitchell could apply his talents at promoting compromise to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict years after the Northern Ireland accord. Two years later, in exasperation, he resigned.
He is well-known in Belfast. When he went to see “Agreement,” a play about the peace talks in which he plays a part, audience members gave him a standing ovation.
At Queen’s University, where Mitchell served as chancellor from 1999 to 2009, a huge bronze bust of him was presented on Monday in a quadrangle.
He said, “You know the end is near when you look at a statue of yourself.”
Mitchell claims that one of the reasons he fell in love with Northern Ireland and its people was because it reminded him of his home state of Maine with its rugged landscape, harsh winters, and tenacious inhabitants.
It also gave him a connection to his father, an Irish immigrant’s son from Boston who was raised in an adoptive family and was unaware of his heritage.
Mitchell stated, “My father had no awareness of, personal experience with, or sense of his Irish origins. I never overheard him mention Ireland. however, I arrived here. I gained an understanding of my father’s family history.
And I like to imagine that he’s up there, smiling down at me, happy that I’ve been able to understand something about his heritage that he never knew or comprehended.
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