Senator George Mitchell was back in Belfast yesterday to deliver Queen’s University’s Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice’s third annual Harri Holkeri Lecture on ‘Reflections on Brokering Peace in Divided Societies.’
Mitchell shared memories and insights about his role in brokering the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, before fielding questions from the BBC’s William Crawley, as well as those in attendance.
Mitchell refused to be drawn on most questions about the current state of the political process in Northern Ireland. But echoing the comments made by President Barack Obama on his visit to Northern Ireland in 2013, Mitchell endorsed fully integrated schools. Mitchell said:
‘Yes, [the Agreement] reinforced divisions but it reflected the reality of the time. … In the US, my experience of education growing up was that it was a mechanism for promoting understanding of diversity. … A fully integrated education system is one mechanism, but it takes time.’
Crawley responded by observing, ‘That’s a pretty clear recommendation for fully integrated education,’ to which Mitchell replied:
‘Yes, but it cannot be imposed.’
When asked about how Northern Ireland might deal with the past, Mitchell stressed that every post-violence context is unique and that it is up to the people themselves to reach their own conclusions about what strategies will work best.
He observed that even in just the short time he had been in Belfast for the lecture, he detected a mood of self-criticism – perhaps pessimism – about the current political process. But he reminded the audience that the ability to be self-critical is foundational to democracies and that every society has its difficulties.
When Crawley shared that there continued to be little fraternization among politicians from either side of the divide in Northern Ireland, Mitchell responded that this trend also has developed in the United States.
When Mitchell, a Democrat, became Senate Majority Leader in 1989, he said the first step he took was to have a conversation with outgoing Majority Leader, Republican Bob Dole. Dole shared advice and they had a close relationship throughout Mitchell’s tenure. Now, Mitchell said, American politics has retreated into ‘two different camps,’ and as in Northern Ireland, it is difficult to see how this can be overcome in the short-term.
But overall, the tone of Mitchell’s address was positive, and he praised the perseverance of those who had participated in the talks that produced the Agreement. He recalled warning in 1998 that implementing the Agreement would more difficult than coming to an agreement. He said that he still believed what he and the two other international brokers — Harri Holkeri and John de Chastelain – said at the time: that the people of Northern Ireland will be up to the challenge.
Mitchell also said:
‘There are not any better people anywhere in the world than in Northern Ireland. They are quarrelsome and tend to be quick to take offence. [But they are] tremendously energetic and productive, warm.’
Some of Mitchell’s reflections also served to remind the audience of how far Northern Ireland has come. He recalled that in the first five-year span of the talks, they never once got all the parties in the room at the same time. The first 18 months of the talks were spent agreeing on the rules for the talks – a process Mitchell imagined would only take days.
He recalled that the first time he felt real hope for the process was when all the parties agreed to work to a deadline of 9 April 1998. Even though it took a month for the deadline to be agreed, this signalled to him that the parties were serious about progress.
Mitchell’s lecture was the first event in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice’s Spring Festival of Events, which runs through 28 May, concluding with a lecture and Q&A on ‘Dealing with the Past’ with Baroness Nuala O’Loan. The festival includes a number of events with an international scope. The full programme can be viewed here.
The Harri Holkeri Lecture Series was launched in 2013 to honour the role played by the late Finish Prime Minister in the Northern Ireland peace process and in forging the Belfast Agreement together with Senator Mitchell and John de Chastelain.