Senator George Mitchell


On behalf of Liverpool John Moore’s University I recently chaired a public lecture given by Senator George Mitchell, one of the principal architects of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement.

I had asked him to reflect on the principal challenges facing western democracies. He spoke clearly and effectively – being warmly received by more than a thousand Liverpool people who gathered at the Philharmonic Hall.

Mitchell argued that the United States has to “regain our moral stature in the world. Our power is the greatest it has ever been, but our standing is the lowest it has ever been. We need power to protect us but principles to guide us”

He insisted that “military force by itself is insufficient as a response to counter terrorism” and he drew parallels with Northern Ireland as he warned of the dangers of alienation.

However, he also refused to rule out the use of force in situations like Darfur where he said the international community had utterly failed to prevent the atrocities of the Sudanese.

He also  argued that the US needed to do more to counter climate change and he combined this with an acceptance that the ordinary citizen cannot simply pass the buck to Governments: “Modest personal changes in personal behaviour can make a huge impact. There are limits to what Governments can achieve and we must be realistic.”

Mitchell is one of America’s leading Catholic politicians. He has a quiet, modest, genuine integrity which marks him out. Unsurprisingly, his work in Northern Ireland and the Middle East – and his passion for conflict resolution – is what will always make his voice one worth listening to. We in these islands will always owe him a huge debt for what he achieved in Northern Ireland.

The scene was set for his lecture with the presentation of good citizenship awards to two young people – Gemma Benns and Lee Beswick – who have given huge amounts of time to voluntary work with the Warrington Peace Centre. I asked Colin Parry, the Centre’s founder -and who turned his own loss and suffering after the tragic killing of his son 12-year-old son, Tim, into a source of hope and reconciliation – to read their citations.

Colin’s presence was a vivid reminder of the long years of terror and violence that destroyed countless lives and so disfigured British-Irish relations.

Just after the Irish famine of the 1840s – that claimed one million lives – and led to the emigration of 3 million others – many leaving via the Port of Liverpool “the Gateway to America” – William Gladstone, born in the city’s Rodney Street, wrote to his wife “Ireland, Ireland that cloud in the west, that coming storm,” and he named “cruel and inveterate and but half-atoned injustice” as the source of Ireland’s pain and suffering. Gladstone dedicated his political life to the Irish Question, famously stating that “it is my mission to pacify Ireland”

But in the century that followed, far from seeing the storm abate, Northern Ireland came to be dominated by narrow sectarian bitterness; the bomb and the gun taking the place of rational argument.

Like most people with British and Irish antecedents my greatest desire has always been to seek a peaceful way forward; but never ending retaliatory acts of violence often seemed to make  that a remote possibility.

The day after I was first elected to Parliament, in 1979, the Conservative Northern Ireland Spokesman, Airey Neave MP  was blown up in the precincts of the House.  Both my maiden speeches in the Commons and the Lords reflected on the continuing tragedy of Ulster and some of the lessons that could be learnt from Liverpool’s experiences in overcoming sectarianism.

For many years I held front bench responsibilities for Irish Affairs and have been a frequent visitor to the North.  I applauded John Major and then Tony Blair as they sought to resurrect talks on power sharing.  They both saw the importance of involving a credible third party to act in a mediating role.

In 1995, in what was a courageous attempt to break the cycle of violence, President Clinton appointed Senator George Mitchell as his Special Envoy to Northern Ireland.

Mitchell  told me that when he first arrived it was far from plain sailing. Ian Paisley told him he suspected that Mitchell would show bias because of his Catholic faith. Mitchell refuted this but in an amusing counter-point Ian Paisley pointed out that he was hardly reassured on discovering that the  Senator’s chief of staff was a lady whose name was Pope! Happily, it emerged on inquiry that she was a Methodist!

Mitchells’ natural personal courtesy, patience, and stamina were all needed in the arduous
period which lay ahead.
The Mitchell report on decommissioning was the first fruit and throughout 1996-1998 he chaired the Northern Ireland Multi-Party talks.  Exactly ten years ago many of us held our breath as the Good Friday Agreement was signed by the warring parties. That Agreement opened the way to devolved government and power sharing, the fruits of which are now clear for all to see.

Senator Mitchell is himself of Irish and Lebanese descent. A one-time army intelligence officer, he became involved in Democrat politics and was appointed to the US Senate in 1980 as Senator for Maine. He served for 14 years, and between 1989 and 1995 he also served as Senate Majority Leader.

Associated with a number of universities – including Queens Belfast, where he is Chancellor – he has served in senior roles in firms connected with commerce and law. He was Chairman of the International Crisis Group – a not-for-profit organisation – and has also been involved in searching for solutions to the Middle East conflict. Recently, he has been examining issues of sustainability, the dangers of climate changes, and the instability which can stem from global inequalities.

In recognition of his crucial role in bringing political progress to Northern Ireland, on July 4th 1998 Senator Mitchell was awarded the Liberty Medal – America’s highest award.

In his acceptance speech he said: “I believe there’s no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended…No matter how ancient the conflict, no matter how hateful, no matter how hurtful, peace can prevail.”

That belief, and Senator Mitchells’ spirit and commitment, are needed in so many conflict ridden parts of the world today.

To listen to Senator Mitchell’s Lecture go to: http://www.ljmu.ac.uk/citizen/ and click on Roscoe Lectures.