DUBLIN — On Dec. 1, 1994, in the Oval office, I watched Sen. George Mitchell being formally appointed peace envoy to Northern Ireland by President Bill Clinton.
As a White House correspondent at the time, I recall thinking that if anyone could secure agreement among the warring parties in Northern Ireland it would be the Democratic senator for Maine, with his reputation for tough diplomacy and fairness. But many in Washington and in Ireland were deeply skeptical about the ability of anyone to negotiate a peace accord.
In fact, it would be four years and many late nights before Mitchell saw the fruit of his labors in the form of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It took many more years of diplomacy before that agreement resulted in a stable power-sharing government in 2007.
Now 75, the former senator has been given another "mission impossible," as special envoy to the Middle East, by President Barak Obama. Mitchell’s record on Northern Ireland shows that, however obdurate the parties to the Middle East conflict are, he at least has the stature, patience and negotiating skills to bring them to the table.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently praised Mitchell as the person who helped “to create a space (in Northern Ireland) where even though the distrust is great, a culture of minimum compromise gives way to making the bold step forward, accepting the other side is looking to do the same.”
Journalist-historian Deaglan de Breadun, Dublin-based author of "The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland," tells me how Mitchell managed to oversee the process of reconciliation between parties and groups who had been bitterly opposed to one another for decades: “His quiet authority and fair-mindedness, his clear and lucid use of language and his warm humanity contributed greatly to the present situation where former IRA activists and supporters are in government with their long-time opponents on the other side of the community and religious divide.”
That day in 1994, when Bill Clinton asked Mitchell to take on “an issue of central importance to me and our country,” the president referred to the senator as an “economic envoy” rather then as “peace envoy.” The word "economic" was a sop to the government of the United Kingdom, which had resisted American political intervention in its back-yard.
But as we left the White House that December day, the British ambassador, Sir Robin Renwick, remarked to me that the highly-respected Mitchell would get London’s full cooperation in trying to broker an end to the conflict.
This was a crucial breakthrough.
The British government quickly accepted that Mitchell’s role was not that of an economic envoy but was indeed to preside over peace negotiations. The personal interest of the U.S. president — Clinton made telephone calls to key individuals at all hours to back up his envoy during critical negotiations — and the cooperation of both the British and Irish governments and all parties to the conflict were essential factors in Mitchell’s success in securing agreement.
In the Middle East Mitchell will undoubtedly have the necessary backing of the president, but he will have to strive for the cooperation of all parties and governments in the region to persuade them to make what Blair called “the bold step forward.” Peacemaking, Mitchell said about the Good Friday Agreement, is easy to romanticize, but is “very tedious and difficult and for the most part discouraging.”
Mitchell is now an all-American hero in Ireland, north and south. He has received countless honors, including the chancellorship of Queen’s University, Belfast, for his role in achieving peace. If he succeeds in the Middle East, history will show that the former U.S. senator, with a father of Irish descent and a Lebanese mother, was destined to be the harbinger of peace in the homelands of both of his parents.