x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

US peacemaker's journey from West Belfast to the West Bank

While George Mitchell succeeded in building bridges between the warring factions of Northern Ireland, the former US special envoy for Middle East Peace says he can't say the same for this region.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, joined by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and US Middle East envoy George Mitchell during bilateral talks in September, 2010.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, joined by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and US Middle East envoy George Mitchell during bilateral talks in September, 2010.

DOHA// Billy Wright was shot dead by republican prisoners on the morning of December 27, 1997, inside Northern Ireland's Maze prison.

The loyalist paramilitary, known as King Rat, had been sitting in the back of a van that was to take him to another part of the H-Bloc for a visit, when three republican inmates clambered over the roof that separated the prisoners' wings.

One of them fired several shots into Wright's body, using a pistol that had been smuggled into what was supposed to be Europe's most secure prison.

Fifteen years later in a Doha hotel, George Mitchell describes the day that could have ended Northern Ireland's peace process and changed the course of Irish history.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," says the former US Senate majority leader and special envoy for Middle East Peace.

Mr Mitchell's journey as a peacemaker stretches from West Belfast to the West Bank. While he succeeded in building bridges between the warring factions of Northern Ireland, he failed in his attempt to do the same in the Middle East.

A year after stepping down from his role as US special envoy for Middle East Peace, he can see the lighter side.

"After spending two and a half years in the Middle East, I now believe the Irish were really easy to deal with," he says.

He may not have been so easily amused in the weeks that followed the murder of Wright, which touched off a series of assassinations.

This threatened to wreck the peace talks that Mr Mitchell was then brokering.

"We had tried in mid-December of 1997 to get the parties to agree to a relatively simple list of the issues that had to be resolved - not the answers mind you - just an agreement on the phrasing of the issues. We came very close to doing it, but in the end the old suspicions and recriminations surfaced. I went home for Christmas very dejected."

Things were about to get much worse after the killing of Wright. Attempts to diffuse the situation by moving the negotiations to London and then Dublin did not help.

Sketch of a plan

On a flight from Dublin to New York, Mr Mitchell sketched out a plan that would lead to the signing of the historic peace accord that became known as the Good Friday Agreement.

"I felt quite strongly that in the absence of an early and unbreakable deadline that the process was doomed to failure," he recalls.

The US Senate is not the most obvious apprenticeship for the cauldron of Northern Ireland politics. But it taught George Mitchell one trick that helped strike a deal effectively ending 30 years of sectarian conflict there known as "The Troubles".

"When you get the votes, you vote," he says, referring to what can be the swiftly changing whim of politicians. That moment came at 4.45pm on April 10, 1998, when he received a call from David Trimble, then head of the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland.

It was the culmination of two years of negotiations between 10 political groups and two governments.

After a 17-hour session of bitter negotiations, all the parties involved had given their sometimes tortured assent, except Mr Trimble's Ulster Unionists.

Everyone thought the talks would collapse and the cycle of violence would resume. Then the phone rang.

"We're ready to do the business," said Mr Trimble, who was to share a Nobel Peace Prize for his part in the deal.

"I'm going to call a meeting in 10 minutes," said Mr Mitchell in reply. "No speeches. Let's get it approved. Then you guys can talk about it all night."

His pride in the role he played in getting the accord done is obvious he recalls that Easter of 1998. But he is careful to credit the political will of the parties and governments involved, always framing the deal in terms of their achievement rather than his own.

"Through the prism of subsequent events looking back, it's hard to capture the uncertainty that existed at the time. Until that last minute we didn't know," he says. "The process was literally teetering on the brink. I shudder to think what would have happened if we didn't get an agreement."

These days he moves more in the world of business than politics, travelling the globe as chairman emeritus of DLA Piper, the international law firm. He also worked for the firm between 2003 and 2008 before being called by President Barack Obama to serve in the Middle East.

Middle East peace deal 'inevitable'

After two years of talks there was to be no Good Friday agreement for the Palestinians and Israelis. Still, Mr Mitchell believes a Middle East peace deal is inevitable and that the Arab Spring has underscored the importance of securing such an accord.

"Measured in historical terms there is an extreme amount of turbulence in the region now - obviously the two major events being Egypt and Syria. I don't think there's a person alive who can predict to you with absolute certainty what is going to occur in either.

"The Israelis are not going to be able to get reasonable and sustainable security over time unless and until the Palestinians get a state. And the Palestinians can't get a state until the Israelis have reasonable and sustainable security. Their self interest will ultimately dominate."

The political upheaval in the wider region should press the case for both sides.

"I have argued to both that they would be better off with an agreement going through this turbulence than without one. I think that has been demonstrated by the Israeli government's interest in maintaining the treaties that exist with Egypt and Jordan. Just think how much greater the insecurity and anxiety would be if those agreements did not exist."

Mr Mitchell's emotional attachment to Northern Ireland is palpable in a way that seems missing when he discusses the Middle East. It goes beyond the simple fact that his principal political legacy will be his role in securing the Good Friday Agreement.

It may be that the timing was right not only for the Northern Irish combatants back in 1998 but also for him as a mediator able to commit long hours in kitchens as well as conference rooms, charming, cajoling or bullying the political and paramilitary leaders whose consensus was necessary to achieve peace.

There may not have been much left in his emotional tank when President Obama called on his services a decade later. "I never thought of it like 'we did it here, so we can do it there'. The President asked me to serve and I was ready and willing to do so," he says. "While I don't think it likely there will be any negotiated agreement [between Palestinians and Israelis] in the immediate future, I think ultimately and perhaps in the not-too-distant future, both sides will recognise their self interest lies in an agreement. The pain that each will endure politically in getting and presenting an agreement to their respective people, although substantial, will in fact be much less than the pain their societies will endure if they don't."

Fifteen years later - a return visit

Mr Mitchell returned to Northern Ireland this year with his family to keep a promise made 15 years ago after the Good Friday deal was struck.

In his parting comments to the sleep-deprived parties at the time, he said it was his wish to return to the Northern Ireland Assembly one day with his son, born at that time, to hear the ordinary issues of life in a democratic society being discussed.

"There will be no talk of war, for the war will have long been over. There will be no talk of peace, for peace will be taken for granted," he said in what has become a much quoted line.

On his return visit this year, Mr Mitchell travelled from the loyalist east of the city to its republican west, in the back of taxis driven by former paramilitary prisoners who, notwithstanding 15 years of peace, still prefer to keep to their respective patches.

"While it is true, and happily so, that the conflict has largely ended, I don't think anyone can say full reconciliation has taken place," Mr Mitchell says.

During his visit, he travelled along Belfast's peace line, the barricades that have separated Protestant and Catholic communities in parts of the city since 1969.

Conversations with people living on both sides revealed the deep divisions that still exist in Belfast.

"Those who live in proximity to the peace line think it should remain, while support for taking it down increases with distance from the line itself," he says.

Still, Mr Mitchell was able to keep his promise by sitting through a triumphantly tedious session with his son in the public gallery of the Stormont parliament.

"We listened to a government minister's report on a conference that he had attended that was dry as dust and boring as only a government report can be," he recalls. "And I thought that was great."