A Decade of Peace: A Conversation with George Mitchell '54 Ten Years After Good Friday

Story posted February 27, 2008

April 10, 2008, marks the 10th anniversary of one of George Mitchell's proudest achievements — the so-called "Good Friday Agreement" that brought peace to Northern Ireland after 30 years of sectarian violence. Mitchell, a member of the Bowdoin Class of 1954, served as chairman of those negotiations. His personal intervention with the parties involved was deemed crucial to the success of the talks, and today, a decade later, Northern Ireland remains an important part of Mitchell's life.

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In April, Mitchell will travel to Belfast, Northern Ireland, for a conference bearing his name and focusing on the Good Friday Agreement. In late May — on the 10th anniversary of the ratification of the agreement by the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — he will return for a second Mitchell Conference at Queen's University that will celebrate the landmark agreement and explore the lessons it offers for dealing with conflicts elsewhere.

Last summer, just before his 74th birthday, Mitchell was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He began treatment in January after completing what has become known as "The Mitchell Report"— a 409-page investigation into the illegal use of steroids and other performance enhancing substances by players in Major League Baseball (an interview with Mitchell on his baseball investigation will appear in the Winter issue of Bowdoin magazine). The following conversation with Bowdoin Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs Scott Hood took place in mid-February.


BOWDOIN: Senator, how are you feeling these days?

MITCHELL: I feel fine. I've just completed my sixth week of radiation treatments for prostate cancer, and I have four more weeks to go. So far I feel OK. It's constraining in that I have to go every day, five days a week, so I am not able to travel...the doctors are positive in their prognosis, so I'm hoping to get back to a full schedule in the near future. I am still working. I am active, except that as I said, I can't travel. I have been to Washington to testify at a congressional hearing, and I probably will make another trip down there but, other than that, I am staying at home and working in the office.

BOWDOIN: Your wife and kids must like that.

MITCHELL: They do indeed; it is the longest stretch that I have been home in many years. It's really kind of nice. The problem with it is that it I've deferred a lot of travel so once I complete the treatments I'll be...

BOWDOIN: You'll be gone for ever!

MITCHELL: Well yeah, April, May, and June I'll be pretty much traveling to make up for things. Then I will come up to Maine for July and August. So I really look forward to that.

BOWDOIN: You'll be attending two conferences in Northern Ireland this spring — both bearing your name. What are your hopes for those events?

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MITCHELL: To me, the most important objective is to further solidify the gains that have been made in the past several years in Northern Ireland, both in terms of peace and reconciliation and in economic growth and job creation.

The history of the past decade makes very clear that one of the many adverse consequences of violence in situations such as has existed in Northern Ireland is a decline in investment and economic activity that leads to an increase in unemployment and hard times, which contributes further to the violence — it is sort of a downward spiral. It is very hard to break the spiral but if you can do it and end the violence and get people thinking more positively, then you get an increase in investment and an increase in jobs and you get a positive and upward spiral, which is what we are on now. I think the most important thing is to solidify that and to reduce any likelihood that there will be a reversion to the conflict of the past.

BOWDOIN: A decade after the agreement was signed and ratified, isn't it fair to say that there's still a long way to go in Northern Ireland?

MITCHELL: Oh yes, of course, it's very fair.

BOWDOIN: What major obstacles remain?

MITCHELL: Northern Ireland remains a divided society. Full and genuine reconciliation has not yet been achieved. There has, in fact, by some measurement, been an increase in the patterns of segregation in housing and education and in other areas. It's my view that reconciliation takes a very long time — generations.

"I think what it takes is the passing of the generation that fought the war and the coming of a generation that didn't have that experience, and then I think you will see the kind of reconciliation that is possible."

In 1992, as senate majority leader, I led a delegation of senators to what was then Yugoslavia, a country that was breaking up under the pressure of a very violent war. We went to a small village along the border of Croatia and Bosnia, and the mayor gave us a tour. Virtually every building in this town had been either destroyed completely or badly damaged, and he told us the story of how before the war, the population of the village was about half Serb and about half Croat. When the war began the Serbs gained the upper hand and with paramilitary forces they seized the town, drove all of the Croats out, and burned down every building in town owned by a Croat. A year-and-a-half later, the tide of war changed — the Croats had the upper hand militarily. They recaptured the town and in retaliation they burned down every building in the town owned by a Serb, and the result was what we saw. And I asked the mayor, "When do you think Serbs and Croats will be able to live side by side in peace again here in this little town?" I'll never forget the exact words — he said, "We will repair our buildings long before we repair our souls."

What he meant was that you can rebuild physical structures, you can even recreate governmental institutions, but to change what is in people's hearts and minds takes a long time, and I think it will in Northern Ireland.

I think what has to happen is that you have to have a new generation that lives their lives entirely in a peaceful context. It's very hard, impossible for many who had suffered personal losses — husbands, sons, children, fathers — to forget and forgive. It's just not possible and so I think what it takes is the passing of the generation that fought the war and the coming of a generation that didn't have that experience, and then I think you will see the kind of reconciliation that is possible. Although I have to say that I have had two meetings with Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in the past two months, and it's just extraordinary the extent to which there is no hostility between them.¹ There is, in fact, an obvious warmth and friendship and a desire to work together. It really is extraordinary. So I believe what I just said is generally true but there are exceptions to it and hopefully there will be many exceptions to it inspired by the example of Paisley and McGuinness.

BOWDOIN: But one cannot happen without the other. That is, even if enough time passes with people living in peace, there can't be peace in Northern Ireland without an improved economic environment.

MITCHELL: Well, I think there is peace there. I think that will bring reconciliation — genuine reconciliation, and reduce the emphasis on separate communities, which still exists there. I believe that economic growth and job creation are the principal solvents to virtually every conflict in human societies, although not the exclusive factor.

Very few conflicts are exclusively economic, but there is an economic factor in all of them, and you minimize the likelihood of conflict and you maximize the ability to end a conflict by placing a great emphasis on opportunity, growth, jobs, education, the kinds of things that are so integral to the success of American society. We are very fortunate to be Americans, and most of us take almost all the benefits we get for granted, but I believe one of the most important reasons for the success of American society was that this country was the first true meritocracy in human history. That is, the first place where a person's life and future were not determined largely by status, wealth, positions of power or privilege, and where everybody has a chance to succeed and to go as far and as high as his or her talent and willingness to work will take them. So, to the extent possible in different societies with different cultures, you have to recreate that circumstance where everybody has the chance...both feels they have the chance and does have the chance. That's how you get people concentrating on the positive contributions they can make to a society rather than on the negative.

This is not easy. There are a lot of factors involved on all sides. Let me give you an example: Public policy plays a big role in this. Northern Ireland's economy is doing pretty well right now. There is an increase in investment, there is some growth, but it still has an economy that has a disproportionately large public sector and a security sector. Over time, that will have to change and it will, but remember Northern Ireland is one of four parts of the United Kingdom: Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England. The British government has to be very careful about how they do that. Per capita expenditures from the central government to Northern Ireland are higher than they are to any of the other three components. The government wants to reduce that to make it more even but they can't do it too quickly or too precipitously, lest they induce a sharp recession and increase the possibility of a reversion to conflict.

So, there are a huge number of factors, probably far more complex than I or anyone else really understands, that have to work and work right for this situation to stabilize and stay well. But, to me, the single most important reason why there was a peace agreement in the first place and why they are moving forward now — the single most important reason — is not very complicated. It's that the people became sick of war. They wanted to have a normal life and they couldn't have a normal life in the circumstances that had existed. I think that has taken hold and while you still have on both sides — in relatively small numbers — those who would return to conflict if they could, I hope and pray and don't think that opportunity will be there for them.

BOWDOIN: A decade later, it sounds like you are still very much involved?

MITCHELL: I am indeed, yes. As you know, I am the chancellor of Queen's University [in Belfast, Northern Ireland].

BOWDOIN: What does that mean exactly, what do you do as chancellor?

MITCHELL: Well, I'll tell you a story that President Mills will get a kick out of. After the peace agreement was reached, I received several honorary degrees — I have gotten them now from nearly 50 universities and colleges from all over the world. At the time, Queen's University contacted me to say they would like to give me an honorary degree, which I accepted.

We had a wonderful ceremony and a little while later I got a call from a fellow representing what they call their senate — an institution that is not identical but similar to a board of trustees here in the U.S. It includes supporters, alumni, students, faculty, and so forth.

He said they had met and voted unanimously to invite me to serve as Chancellor at Queen's.

And I said, "Well, gee, I'm sorry. I'm really kind of busy. I don't think I want to do it — so, I appreciate it, but no thanks."

We terminated the call and two days later he called me up again. He said, "I gave my report to the Senate and they wanted to know really why is it that you turned us down. We would really like to pursue this and what are the reasons, because maybe we can deal with this."

So I said to him, "Well, one of the reasons is that I am familiar with a lot of presidents and chancellors of American universities, and I know they have to spend a lot of time raising money. One of the reasons I left politics was that I got tired of all this political fundraising."

He said, "Senator, you don't understand - we have a different system." He said, "We regard fundraising as beneath the dignity of the Chancellor."

I said, "Really?"

"Oh, yes," he said. "We would never ask you to do something like that."

So, I accepted. About six months later, they created what is called the Queen's Foundation, which is a fundraising vehicle, and I am the chairman of that. So, every year now I do fundraising dinners for Queen's in London and Dublin and Belfast, and I've done a couple in New York and Washington.

BOWDOIN: So they got you!

MITCHELL: Yes. But it's a nominal position. I am not directly involved in the operations of the University.

BOWDOIN: But you go there for major events?

MITCHELL: Oh yes, I go every year. Since I left the U.S. Senate, I have never spent a Fourth of July in the United States. For the first five years, I was there working on the peace process, then when I became chancellor, graduations are always the first week in July. So I go to London, Dublin and Belfast each year in late June and early July, and I preside at the graduation ceremonies and I usually go two or three other times a year. For example, I mentioned that I saw Paisley and McGuinness twice. One of the events is when I presided at a ceremony establishing an international cancer research center at Queen's. It's a very large undertaking — it will be one of the largest such centers in the world, the result of a cooperative between Queen's and the United States National Institutes of Health and the counterpart institute in the country of India. This was a big event and Paisley and McGuinness came to the dedication, and we all spoke, and that is how I happened to see them. That is the type of thing I go to.

BOWDOIN: You have been involved in so many important moments in your career as a Senator — as a peace negotiator in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, as an investigator for the Olympics and now Major League Baseball — but it sounds like the relationships you've developed in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland are among your proudest achievements.

MITCHELL: Yes, that's true. I'm often asked by interviewers, "What is your greatest accomplishment, what do you think you have done that has any meaning?" They typically have in mind legislation. What bill did I pass — the Clean Air bill, the Oil Spill Prevention bill, and a lot of other major legislation that I was involved in. But the two things that mean the most to me personally are the Northern Ireland peace agreement and my scholarship program in Maine.

Over a period of five years, I was in Northern Ireland for most of the time. I presided over three separate sets of negotiations, which were very difficult and often were regarded as having no chance for success. It was tough, and so it was a great thing that it turned out as it did and I am really honored to be a part of it, however small. I have a very warm feeling for people in Northern Ireland. I like to go there. I like to go back. I take my kids there because I want them to understand how important it is to me, what it means in my life. And of course, my paternal grandparents were born in Ireland, so it has some meaning to me.

The second thing that I regard as most significant is my scholarship fund in Maine.² I now really have three scholarship programs that I actively support, most importantly the one in Maine — the Mitchell Institute — that gives a scholarship to a graduate of each Maine high school every year. To me, who will never forget how much help I got as a young man to get started in life — not the least of which came from Bowdoin, which is a principal reason for my very strong commitment and devotion to Bowdoin — I feel very good about the fact that I can now help others.

BOWDOIN: It seems clear that a measure of your success in Northern Ireland was linked to the fact that you were the former majority leader of the United States Senate and that you represented the United States of America. You brought a considerable amount of prestige to the table, stuck with it and ultimately prevailed. Given the state of the world today, a decade later, does a person in your position arrive at a similar negotiation these days with the same amount of clout?

MITCHELL: Among the greatest challenges that the next president will face is the absolute imperative of restoring, renewing, and reinvigorating the alliances among free nations that the United States took the lead in creating after the Second World War and which have fallen into serious disrepair in the last seven years. And, as a part of that, reclaiming the moral stature of the United States in the world, which has been badly damaged by the policies of the Bush Administration.

This is not just a moral issue or a theoretical issue. This has a practical daily effect on the ability of the United States to persuade others to support policies that we believe to be in our interest and in the interest of others. It severely hampers our ability to create coalitions, to organize others, and there isn't a better example of it right now than Iran. The United States has been struggling now for years to organize effective sanctions to deter the Iranian government and has largely been unable to do so because of the mistrust and distrust that others have of the current administration and because of some of the actions that it has taken. So it has a real practical, meaningful, daily effect on our ability to devise and execute policies on behalf of our national interest.

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I am now the chairman of one of the largest law firms in the world. We have offices in 65 countries on every continent. I travel to every continent, and I can say absolutely that American power is the greatest it has ever been, but America's standing in the world is the lowest it has ever been. That is something we have to change. This includes but goes far beyond the answer to your question — which is, of course, American envoys and ambassadors and those who undertake and try to implement diplomatic missions are severely handicapped by that reality.

BOWDOIN: You have said that your experience in Northern Ireland taught you that "letting go of the past and looking to the future is a very hard but necessary step toward dealing with an ongoing problem." That makes all sorts of practical sense but aren't there just some situations that are beyond settlement, where people are just not going to get along?

MITCHELL: Yes, of course. And you can tick them off. I, for example, believe in active and aggressive diplomacy and reasonable discussion and meaningful negotiation, but there are some with whom none of that can occur — al-Qaeda is a good example. No rational person would suggest that we try to undertake some kind of negotiation with al-Qaeda. It's obvious — plain as day — that that would be meaningless and could not possibly succeed. And you will encounter circumstances in which there is no alternative but the use of force. I very strongly believe that. The question is how, when and under what circumstances do you resort to force and accept the reality that there isn't any other way to deal with the problem.

My differences with the current administration don't relate to whether or not force should ever be used, but the circumstances in which it should be used, and that I think is the real difference. I also believe very strongly that just as every individual retains the right of self-defense, so does a nation, and the United States cannot be bound by any limitation on its right to defend our country and our people when facing an imminent threat. The question is: when is the threat imminent and when is it not? It isn't the general principle; it is the application of the general principle to specific circumstances. So, I don't buy the argument that if you don't support the Administration's policies you are for surrender. The question is: under what circumstances do you engage in diplomacy, do you engage in other activities, or do you have to use, as a last resort, force?

" To me, the most important objective is to further solidify the gains that have been made in the past several years in Northern Ireland, both in terms of peace and reconciliation and in economic growth and job creation."

There are plenty of evil people in the world — irredeemably evil — and you can't go into this with a naïvety that suggests that if I could just talk to everybody I could work out our problems. You can't do that. It isn't going to happen. But you have to have that as your first approach and you have to make a genuine and good faith effort at it.

BOWDOIN: Christopher Hill — Bowdoin Class of 1974 — has taken quite a bit of heat in some quarters for supporting and actually engaging in direct negotiations with North Korea on the issue of nuclear weapons. His critics charge that the North Koreans cannot be trusted and, therefore, the U.S. simply should not talk with them.

MITCHELL: I do not agree. I absolutely do not agree. I believe that both extreme positions are wrong. First, that you say you're not going to talk to anybody who disagrees with you — I think that's a wrong, extreme position. Secondly, on the other end, I'll talk to anybody, no matter what the circumstances. I think that's a wrong, extreme position.

Obviously, you have to have a case-by-case analysis and determination of whether or not it is in our interest to talk to somebody in a particular circumstance. These ideologically driven decisions — all or nothing — simply ignore the complex reality of real life situations. I think you have to talk to the extent that it makes sense from our country's interest, and in most cases, it does. But you have to reserve the right not to do so in cases where — and I go back to the most obvious example — al-Qaeda — where it obviously would make no sense to do so. What's necessary is a practical, realistic middle ground. Incidentally, I think Chris Hill is a terrific guy, and he did a terrific job in North Korea.

BOWDOIN: Getting back to Northern Ireland, how will you celebrate the tenth anniversary of this landmark agreement? Perhaps by raising a good Irish beer?

MITCHELL: Well, I have to tell you another anecdote which is kind of embarrassing. After the peace agreement, I did an interview in Dublin and the reporter asked, "Senator, you've spent a lot of time in both Northern Ireland and Ireland; which one has the best Guinness?"

This was on national television.

I said, "I am embarrassed to tell you I don't drink. I've never had a Guinness in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland."

"Oooh," he said, "your standing is going to go way down!"

So, no, I won't have a beer, Irish or otherwise.


¹ Ian Paisley currently serves as first minister of Northern Ireland. He is a Protestant preacher famous for his opposition to the Catholic Church and to the political unification of Ireland. Paisley was named first minister of Northern Ireland in May of 2007 as part of an agreement to share power with his longtime foes in the Sinn Féin party, including Martin McGuinness, who currently serves as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. McGuinness is an Irish Republican politician and former Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader.

² In 1995, Mitchell founded the Mitchell Scholarship Program, the mission of which is to increase the likelihood that young people from every community in Maine will aspire to, pursue and obtain college degrees. Each year, one graduating senior from every public high school in Maine is selected to receive a Mitchell Scholarship. Ninety percent of Mitchell Scholars attend Maine colleges and universities, including 26 currently enrolled at Bowdoin.


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