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Mitchell: accord offers hope
for peace in Northern Ireland
October 26, 1998
The agreement announced last spring for Northern Ireland makes the achievement of peace possible but it does not guarantee peace for the strife-torn British province, says former U.S. Senator George Mitchell.
"Many difficult steps remain," Mitchell said. "A lot of controversial questions are as yet unanswered, and there will have to be a continuing good faith effort by the two governments (Britain and Ireland), by the political parties in Northern Ireland, by outside help like that of the United States, and most of all by the people of Northern Ireland."
Mitchell, who served as chair of the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland, made his remarks while delivering the third lecture in the Sackler Distinguished Lecture Series at Konover Auditorium at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. The series is supported by a gift to the Dodd Center from philanthropists Raymond and Beverly Sackler.
Under Mitchell's leadership, the historic accord ending decades of conflict was agreed upon by the governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom and the political parties of Northern Ireland. Last May, the agreement was overwhelmingly endorsed by the voters of Ireland, north and south, in a referendum. For his efforts, Mitchell was nominated for the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize. The prize was ultimately shared by John Hume and David Trimble, the leaders of Northern Ireland's two main political parties.
Speaking without a prepared text, Mitchell shared his insights on being part of history in the making, particularly after seeing the impact decades of sectarian violence have had on the people of Northern Ireland.
Mitchell opened the lecture with a poem written by a 14-year-old girl from Northern Ireland. "I am afraid/Afraid of the land that I live in, that I was born in/The ground I tread each day resounds with shots, with screams/It is saturated with tears, tears that never stop flowing/My life has been full of murder, but I have never known peace."
"These moving words, written by a young woman of 14, sadly, accurately, describe the situation that existed in Northern Ireland for more than the past quarter century," Mitchell said.
"It was a society sharply divided, filled with hate and recrimination, dominated by fear, anxiety and violence. No one can fully enjoy what we call human rights, or civil rights, or individual liberties in a society so terribly permeated by fear and violence," he said.
"A young mother who saw her children off to school in the morning could never be sure if they would return, for fear of some random act of violence," said Mitchell. "A person working on a construction site or in an office, could never be certain that when they left to go home they might suddenly be objects of assassination solely because of their religion, their name, where they came from, where they live."
Mitchell credited the British and Irish governments for coming together to start discussing ways to end the political violence in Northern Ireland "after years of mutual recrimination." He said the two governments, spurred in large part by their shared membership in the European Union, realized that there could not be peace in Northern Ireland without a joint and cooperative effort on their part.
"They would in turn establish the foundation for a peace process that brings the terrible violence in Northern Ireland to an end," he said. "It culminated in the agreement reached on Good Friday of this year and overwhelmingly approved by the voters of Ireland - north and south - in a referendum on May 26."
The agreement provides for the establishment of a new Northern Ireland assembly, which Mitchell said is the first form of self government in the province in more than a quarter century. The agreement also fosters the development of new institutions to foster cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Mitchell said, which will be helpful in solidifying the peace.
"The most difficult thing to do in conflict resolution is to banish hate and despair and create love and hope," Mitchell said. "I believe it is possible in Northern Ireland, but it is not assured. And in the best of circumstances it will take a long time. There is a long history of grievance, thousands have died, tens of thousands were maimed and injured, and a highly emotional, well-attended funeral was becoming a staple of the social fabric in Northern Ireland. But there are signs of hope."
Mitchell urged students to devote a part of their lives to some meaningful cause, one from which they wouldn't "derive any direct or monetary gain ... a cause which is larger than yourself, because in the end you will be the largest beneficiary."
"I spent three and a half years in Northern Ireland. I thank God for the opportunity to have helped others, as I myself have been helped so many times in my life," Mitchell said. "Of all those who benefited from the experience in Northern Ireland, I believe no one benefited more than me."
Mitchell represented Maine in the U.S. Senate for nearly 15 years. He was appointed to the Senate in 1980 to complete the unexpired term of Sen. Edmund S. Muskie, who resigned to become Secretary of State. Mitchell was elected to two full terms in the Senate, serving as Majority Leader during his last six years in office.