Senator George Mitchell Recommends Integrated Education – Queen’s Conflict Transformation Spring Festival

MitchellSenator 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.

The report on Mitchell’s lecture from the Belfast Telegraph can be read here.




  • the rich get richer

    Well integrated education is not exactly rocket science is it.

    Save the children from faith schools and segregated education…..doh….

  • Sergiogiorgio

    A generation ago I would have said integrated education was the panacea. However now I’m less sure that primary school kids even perceive “religion”. I think it’s still a good idea but reckon by the time it flows through, say another generation, we’ll have missed the boat. We just have to wait for our generation and the last to die out!

  • chrisjones2

    Neither major party will agree as integrated education would deny them a pool of compliant sheep afarid of themuns and willing to vote without question in 20 years time

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    While not a panacea, it has to be part of the cure. However, there remains the question of the school estate and their locations in segregated neighbourhoods. Mitchell is right that it should not be enforced unless “Desegregation busing” be brought in at least for a short to mid term.
    We might even see another DUP/RC Church alliance over this question.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    If the DUP/RC church align you know you are on a winner.

  • aquifer

    The ethnic gatekeepers will never allow it, its the only job they know, and provides a steady income or at least the chance to boss some people around or lay some guilt on.

  • james

    See, generations overlap…

  • Zig70

    It would be great if we had any integrated education. Pseudo unionist ecumenical education doesn’t have the same ring to it. Maybe ‘we’d better go to theirs cos ours is so crap’ education is better. We even have ‘there is too many of them in Glengormley, our lot have moved to Ballyclare’ education. I hear rumours of one or two schools but it’s faint.