Marvin Kalb: Americans from all walks of life, from inside and outside the government, play important roles as peacebuilders. American diplomats have helped to create peace agreements that have ended some of the world’s longest running and most deadly wars. Former Senator George Mitchell, who has worked with the Institute, used the skills of mediation, and his personal prestige and persistence, to end the long-standing conflict in Northern Ireland. Here is his story:
George Mitchell: I’m George Mitchell, former United States Senator from Maine, Senate Majority Leader, and after service in the Senate, I went to Northern Ireland where, at the invitation of the British and Irish governments, I served as Chairman of the peace talks which led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, ending decades of conflict in Northern Ireland.
(Sounds of explosions, civil unrest.)
The conflict in Northern Ireland was fueled and conducted by paramilitary organizations on both sides—Catholics and Protestants, Nationalists and Unionists.
The level of violence was very high and quite brutal. In the mid-1990s, the British and Irish governments concluded that the only way this could be ended was if they cooperated to try to establish negotiations to bring the conflicting sides together.
The principal negotiations lasted two years. I devised what are called the Mitchell Principles, which require the parties affiliated with paramilitary organizations to use only democratic and peaceful methods for advancing their political objectives.
It was very tense and highly uncertain. I was able to establish a sense that this was going to be a fair proceeding in which everybody could be heard, and I think in the end that’s what helped us to reach an agreement. After many years of negotiations, the deadline for a peace agreement came.
And it was dramatic that last day that we were up all night. There was very little sleep. The principal Unionist Party didn’t reach agreement until about a quarter of five in the afternoon. When the party leader called me, I said, “Look, I want to vote right away.” I’d learned as Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate when you’ve got the votes, you vote. If you delay, something bad might happen.
We assembled at 5 o’clock, and the parties all made clear their assent to the agreement. And so finally, peace came to Northern Ireland.
The most difficult obstacle to overcome is the lack of trust. You can rebuild buildings, you can replace vehicles, you can put bridges back up, but the really important thing to change what is in peoples’ hearts and minds takes much longer.
It takes generations who didn’t see innocent members of their family blown up by a bomb just because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s hard to restore trust; easy to lose it. It isn’t there yet in Northern Ireland, but it’s on its way.
Hope and opportunity are essential to political stability and peace in every society. Whatever people’s differences, they want the same thing. They want to get their children off to a good start in life, they want to have a chance for a decent job, and so what is necessary in all of these conflict societies is to create a sense of hope, a vision, a possibility of the future. Without that hope, without that opportunity, peace is in peril everywhere.