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Wellbeing in Northern Ireland, 20 Years After the Good Friday Agreement, with Senator George J. Mitchell

October 9, 2018

Senator George Mitchell. CREDIT: Amanda Ghanooni

This speech is part of the International Seminar on Wellbeing in Northern Ireland, convened by Carnegie Council and the Carnegie UK Trust.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I'm Joel Rosenthal, president of Carnegie Council, and we're delighted to be co-hosting this program this afternoon with our sister institution, the Carnegie UK Trust. I'm happy to welcome their members here—their Chairman Sir John Elvidge, Executive Director Martyn Evans—and thank you for coming all the way here to be with us today to report on your program, "Wellbeing in Northern Ireland." Martyn will be saying a little bit more about that program.

I know some of you were here earlier and spent an hour watching a wonderful BBC documentary on the 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement, so you've been warmed up accordingly, and we're going to pick up on that conversation now.

Just a brief information sharing here: Senator Mitchell has a personal engagement and must leave shortly after his remarks. I'm going to give a very brief introduction so we can get right to Senator Mitchell, who will share his ideas on this occasion of the 20th anniversary of the signing and adoption of the Good Friday Agreement.

I have the honor of introducing Senator Mitchell to you. Of course he needs no formal introduction to this audience, so I just want to highlight a couple of points. In the context of today's program, you will know Senator Mitchell as the inaugural United States special envoy for Northern Ireland appointed by President Clinton in 1995. He was chair of the Northern Ireland all-party talks that led to the signing of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in 1998. For this work in Northern Ireland he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Truman Institute Peace Prize, the United Nations UNESCO Peace Prize, and various other accolades.

Now, because of this success, Senator Mitchell was subsequently rewarded with some of the most difficult assignments in public life imaginable, including U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace appointed by President Barack Obama and vice-chair of the 9/11 Commission appointed by President George W. Bush. Such is the fate of the successful peacemaker—you get the hardest jobs.

As our topic today is "Wellbeing in Northern Ireland," I think it's important to emphasize that Senator Mitchell is not only a diplomat and a statesman, he is also a grassroots politician, and an extraordinarily successful one at that. He was a district attorney and judge before he was elected senator in the State of Maine. He rose to become Senate Majority Leader in the early 1990s, leading legislative efforts on health care, environmental protection, improving resources for people with disabilities, and improving the economy for working people everywhere.

Senator Mitchell represents the best in American political life and its positive leadership at home and abroad. At a time when things seemed to be hanging in the balance in Northern Ireland and here in the United States, it's reassuring to hear his voice.

When I sent the letter of invitation to Senator Mitchell by email, we got a very speedy and prompt reply "yes," which really touched us. Thank you, sir, for coming.

I'm going to turn it over to Senator Mitchell. We've got about a half an hour before he has to depart.

GEORGE MITCHELL: Thank you, Joel, for that very generous introduction.

I want to say two things before I start talking on the subject that Joel mentioned. The first is I apologize that I have to leave. My closest friend passed away just a day or two ago and I have to go to Maine to deliver the eulogy at his funeral. We have a lot of Irish here and Americans. I'll just tell you a little bit about him.

It was a classic Irish-American success story. We became friends a half-century ago because our backgrounds are so similar. My father's parents were born in Ireland, immigrated to the United States, looking for opportunity and freedom. His parents did the same thing. They ended up in Canada, then worked their way across the border—I think illegally but we don't know for sure—and settled in a small town in Maine not very far from where my own parents settled.

Tom Walsh did not have an extensive education, and he began his life as a stonemason helping to build small motels in Northern Maine and Eastern Canada. But he was a brilliant guy, and very quickly he figured out that it was better to own the motels than to build them. So, when he died, just two days ago, he left a family company that owns and operates 125 hotels from Montreal to Key West, all the way to Salt Lake City, all across the country, one of the most successful family-owned chains in the country. And he was a man of extraordinary philanthropy, tremendously generous in helping people in need and charitable organizations, including several with which I am affiliated.

So that's why I have to leave right at 12:30, and I know you'll understand that.

The second point I want to make is I know several of you from past experience. I want to just mention especially May Blood, my dear friend from many years past in Northern Ireland. May was one of the first persons I met when I went to Northern Ireland, and we struggled through for many years together. It's always a pleasure to see you, May, and I'm sorry I have to leave, but I know you'll understand.

It was 20 years ago this year that the governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland and eight of the political parties in Northern Ireland entered into what became known as the Good Friday Agreement, also called the Belfast Agreement. On the day that I announced the Agreement, I described it as "an historic achievement," which it was. But I also said on that day that by itself the Agreement did not guarantee peace or stability or reconciliation, it simply made them possible. But I said at the time—and it wasn't especially brilliant on my part because everybody was aware of the fact—that the Agreement did not resolve every issue and that there would be many difficult challenges in the years ahead, and that would require vision and courage, as was demonstrated in 1998 by May and her colleagues. I hope that the current leaders of the governments of the United Kingdom and of Northern Ireland and of the European Union as they today reflect on their responsibilities will look back 20 years ago to what their predecessors did.

Much has been said and written about the long and difficult road that led us to the Agreement in April of 1998. Many have deservedly received credit for their roles, but the real heroes of the Agreement were the people and the political leaders of Northern Ireland. They are the ones who did it for themselves and for their people.

The public supported the effort to achieve agreement. It was broad and sustained and continued support among the people as the negotiations were underway, and they later voted overwhelmingly to ratify the Agreement. It was not self-executing. It required approval and referenda by the people of both Northern Ireland and Ireland. And so it was the political leaders of Northern Ireland in dangerous and difficult circumstances, after entire lifetimes in conflict with one another, summoned extraordinary courage and vision, often at great personal risk to themselves, their families, and to their careers.

Today all across the Western world it is fashionable to ridicule and demean political leaders, and surely much of it is well-earned. But we as a people, in our country and in others, don't pay enough attention or pay tribute to those leaders who do rise to the occasion. In Northern Ireland these were ordinary men and women. For the Americans here, they were essentially the equivalent of a state legislature. After 700 days of effort and failure, they joined in one day of success and they changed the course of history.

I want to talk today a bit about what lessons I think we Americans and others can learn from the experience in Northern Ireland. The United States played a role there, thanks to the courageous decision by President Clinton to get involved in a conflict which every previous president had carefully avoided—not with troops or bullets or bombs or large amounts of money, it rather was through political and moral leadership, through dedication to the principle that political differences should be resolved through democratic means and not through violence, through our strong and unwavering encouragement and support, through our trade and tourism, and economic relations, all reflecting a deep American devotion to the cause of peace and security in Northern Ireland.

The United States, of course, must be prepared to use military force when necessary and appropriate, but it is usually most effective when it is part of a larger approach that includes diplomacy. All human beings and all human institutions are fallible and make mistakes, and we Americans as a country have made many serious mistakes. But overall, in the last half of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st I believe that the United States has been a powerful force for good in the world.

In the 75 years before 1945, Europe was devastated by three major land wars. After the Second World War, the Western democracies, led by the United States, helped Germany and Japan to be rebuilt, to rebuild and to become durable democracies. We also led the effort to create international institutions whose goals were peace, stability, and prosperity: the United Nations, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Union. These institutions, and those who created them, sought to prevent a repeat of the past by promoting increased trade and collective security, and they were largely successful.

But those successes are now threatened. I believe it is critical that, despite their obvious anger and frustration, the leaders of the European Union and the United Kingdom must extend themselves in the Brexit negotiations. A hard Brexit will be in no one's interest, especially with respect to the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The European Union and the UK government have both publicly promised, as far back as December of last year, that whatever they do there will not be a hard border, and they must keep that promise. A weakened and divided Europe would mean the loss of a valuable democratic ally for the United States in its dealings with hostile powers and in dealing with the massive upheaval that is underway and is certain to continue all across Africa and Asia. We have a huge stake in the outcome.

In the belief that they are not in our country's best interest, our president has stalled a trade agreement with the European nations, has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord, has withdrawn from the agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, and has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I believe, to the contrary, that cooperative efforts with our historical eyes are plainly in America's interest.

The recent agreements and the post-World War II institutions have been largely beneficial to those who participated in them, including and especially the people of the United States. Any American who thinks the world is unsafe now should contemplate a world in which there was no NATO, no European Union, no World Trade Organization, no United Nations. In that world, constant trade wars could lead to real wars, as happened so regularly in human history, and the United States as the dominant power inevitably would be called upon to lead alone. Just as our allies all around the world look to the United States for leadership, so do we look to them for help and support.

Our ties with Europe predate the establishment of our country. We gained our independence from England by revolution, but we retained England's language, the spirit of its laws, and many of its customs. Although our earlier relations were hostile, over time we developed what became, and remains, a special relationship.

As our own country grew to settle a vast continent, we welcomed millions of immigrants, like Tom Walsh's parents and mine, from England, Ireland, Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Poland, Scandinavia, and many, many more. As a result, we share deep bonds of blood with Europe, not just legal relationships.

While we compete in many ways, I believe it to be a serious mistake to regard Europeans primarily as our adversaries—not to mention Canadians. I have a certain bias there. My wife is a Canadian and I genuinely believe that they are not threats to American security. They all are our partners. Although they do not always agree with us, nor do they always agree among themselves, for the most part they admire our country and they share our values and our interests.

So it is in everyone's interests that we do all we can politically, economically, militarily, and otherwise to help the people of Europe and elsewhere remain democratic, united, free, and prosperous. And I want to say that I believe that we can and will do it because I have confidence in the American people. I believe that our democratic institutions remain strong, that science and reason will prevail over fear and looking backward, and I believe that we will devise the policies to deal effectively with the many challenges we now face and will face in the coming decade.

But to do so we must be true to our principles, and I can't think of a better place to talk about this than this institution devoted to ethics. It is our democratic ideals that distinguish the United States from the very beginning that appeal to people all around the world. While our economic strength and our military power are critical to our security, it is our ideals that have been and remain the primary basis of American influence in the world.

They are not easily summarized, but surely they include the sovereignty of the people; the primacy of individual liberty, our highest value; an independent judicial system; the rule of law applied equally to every citizen and, crucially, to the government itself; and opportunity for every member of society. No American should ever forget that the United States was a great nation long before it was a great economic or military power. We acknowledge that we're not always right, that we can never be perfectly consistent, but we can and must work harder and better to live up to our principles as individuals and as citizens of our society.

We must especially work to fully realize the aspiration of opportunity for all people. No one should be guaranteed success, but every single one should have a fair chance to succeed. From the experience of our daily lives every American here knows that is not the reality, that remains an aspiration. We must raise our actions to the level of our aspirations. Our goal should be a society that encourages striving, celebrates success, is conducive to innovation, and enables us to enjoy the benefit of the talent of every single member of our society.

I want to close on a personal note, which Tom Walsh's death has brought to my mind. I am an American and very proud of it, always will be, but a large part of my heart and of my emotions will forever be in and with the people of Northern Ireland. They are just wonderful people—energetic, productive, warm.

It's true they're quick to take offense, they can be argumentative. May will remember that on the first day of the negotiations one of the delegates who was a truly great man, David Ervine, said to me in a loud voice, "Senator, if you are to be of any use to us there's one thing you must know."

I said, "What is it?"

He said, "We in Northern Ireland would drive 100 miles out of our way to receive an insult." [Laughter]

I laughed, and then I noticed I was the only person in the room laughing. They all knew it was seriously the case.

But they are wonderful people. Almost every day someone thanks me for my work in Northern Ireland, and my response is that it is I who should be thankful.

My father's parents were born in Northern Ireland, came here looking for freedom and opportunity, as did millions of others. Many found it. Many did not. My father never knew his parents. His mother died, and his father couldn't raise the children, so they were raised in orphanages. My father spent several years in a Catholic orphanage in Boston. Ultimately, he was adopted by an elderly childless couple from Maine, who were not Irish and who very poor and lived in what would then be called an industrial slum directly adjacent to a textile mill where they all worked.

My mother was born in Lebanon. She was in a Christian family that was moved by the upheavals that even then occurred in the region, and she and two of her sisters immigrated to the United States and ended up living next door to my father's parents in a tenement in this industrial slum. My mother couldn't read or write, spent 50 years working nights in textile mills.

My father was a very quiet man who said very little. Never ever did he speak about his upbringing, and I never heard him say the word "Ireland," but on the day that I was to leave for college he took me and sat me down at the kitchen table. My mother had just returned from work at the night shift in the textile mills where there were no environmental or employee protections, so she always came into the house at 7 a.m. covered with lint. He said to me, "Look, I know you're a smart young kid. You're going to do well. I just have one thing to say to you. You look at your mother, you look at me. Wherever you go, whatever you do, don't you ever forget where you came from."

I know there are a lot of stories like this in this room and in almost every neighborhood in America. I hope none of us ever forget where we came from.

My father knew nothing about Ireland. We didn't own a car, so we never went anywhere, let alone to Ireland. So, when President Clinton asked me to go to Northern Ireland I had no sense of Irish heritage. I was amused by some of the stories that were published at the time, quite inaccurately, about me and my background. But over the years, five years spent going back and forth on these negotiations and then 10 years as the chancellor of Queen's University, I acquired a sense of my father's heritage and of my own.

I have been treated with such warmth and generosity all over Ireland, North and South, that I feel that I'm the principal beneficiary of the work that I did there. For that I say to the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland thank you very much, and thank all of you for having me here today.

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