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20 Years After Northern Ireland Peace Deal, 'Always A Danger Of Slipping Back,' Former Envoy Says

Former United States Special Envoy George Mitchell. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Former United States Special Envoy George Mitchell. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The Good Friday Agreement was signed 20 years ago in April.

The deal, signed on April 10, 1998, brought an end to decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland. Thousands died in that period — known as the Troubles — as Protestants, or Unionists, fought to keep Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom against Catholics, or Republicans, who wanted to be part of the Republic of Ireland.

George Mitchell, a former Democratic senator from Maine, was President Bill Clinton’s envoy to Ireland and served as chairman of the Northern Ireland peace talks, helping to broker the historic agreement.

“I was naive, to say the least, when I first went there, didn’t have much exposure to the issue before, had never been to Northern Ireland before,” Mitchell tells Here & Now‘s Peter O’Dowd. “But by the time the talks began, I had been there for a year and a half, and so I had gained a sense of how difficult it would be and how violent it would be, and the talks themselves were extremely difficult.”

Interview Highlights

On listening back to President Clinton’s remarks the day the Good Friday Agreement was signed

“It brings back warm memories of the last day. But as I’ve said many times before, that day of success, we had about 700 days of failure. It was a long, tough grind. I chaired three separate sets of negotiations over a span of five years, and so I have much memory of Northern Ireland. I’ve gone there a lot, spent a lot of time there. It’s really a great place. The people are great, they’re energetic, productive … somewhat prone to dispute, and argumentative, but nobody’s perfect. Leaders at that time of Northern Ireland demonstrated tremendous courage and vision in reaching that agreement in a very difficult and dangerous circumstance, and so far, the peace has held.”

On the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland

“It is an ancient conflict stretching back centuries, with periodic outbreaks of violence. The most recent lasted about 20 years, and over that time, about 3,600 people were killed. But that understates the violence, because they had a horrific practice of engaging in what were called ‘punishment’ beatings, where people were permanently maimed and crippled, and those numbers were in the tens of thousands. So the violence was severe. Toward the end, it became random, could happen anywhere. There was widespread fear and anxiety throughout the society. It was very difficult when I first went there: roadblocks, military, armored cars — really a state of siege.”

A British soldier patrols near a church on the edge of the Falls Road District of Belfast, Northern Ireland, on April 3, 1972. (AP Photo)

On those who praised him for not taking sides

“Well I tried very hard to be fair and nonpartisan. I’d had experience — six years as majority leader of the U.S. Senate gives you some practice in trying to bring people together. Before that, I had been a federal judge and a United States attorney. And so while there was considerable opposition to my serving as chairman at the outset, by the time we finished, we were all very friendly and we’ve remained personal friends really for the rest of [our] lives — many of the people have passed away, and some still continue. So it was for me a dramatic experience, but a very difficult one.

“Five years is a long time. I wasn’t there the entire period, I came and went, and there were three separate sets of discussions and negotiations. But it was a difficult process. In the end, it worked out, and I’ve come to love the people of Northern Ireland, the place. I’m an American, very proud of it, but a large part of my heart and of my emotions will always be there in Northern Ireland.”

On problems plaguing the Northern Ireland Assembly — an institution created under the agreement — today

“On the day that I announced the agreement, I said it was an historic achievement — which it was. But I also said on that day that by itself the agreement did not guarantee peace or political stability or reconciliation. There would be difficult decisions down the road for other leaders, and there have been. This is not the first time the assembly has failed. In 1999, a little over a year after the agreement was reached, the assembly collapsed and the prime ministers and President Clinton asked me to go back again — that was my third tour of duty there — and I spent several months, we put it back together again. There have been tremendous controversies since then.

“No society is static. You solve problems that exist today, but you know very well that next week, next month, next year, there are gonna be other problems, and they’ve got them.”

British Prime Minister Tony Blair (right), U.S. Sen. George Mitchell (center) and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern (left) smiling on April 10, 1998, after they signed an historic agreement for peace in Northern Ireland, ending a 30-year conflict. (Dan Chung/AFP/Getty Images)

On whether he thought the agreement would still stand 20 years later

“I hoped, I didn’t know. I was aware that the tribal feelings were deeply entrenched, the hostility and mistrust were deeply entrenched. They’re still there, it’s still somewhat of a segregated society … and not all the problems are solved. But they have made the fundamental decision to try to resolve their problems through peaceful democratic dialogue, rather than through violence. That’s the most important outcome. But I must say — and I will deliver this message across Northern Ireland while I’m there — that this can’t continue, because there’s always a danger of slipping back. A single incident … advances in the technology of killing are so rapid that a small number of people with limited resources can cause tremendous damage, and so the leaders today have got to demonstrate the courage that the leaders demonstrated then in 1998.”

On what’s at stake if Brexit prompts a return to a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland

“Well first, the principal victim of a hard border will be the people of Ireland, the Republic of Ireland. The people of the U.K. who made this decision — and a democratically taken vote, which must be respected — they’re going to suffer, because democracy doesn’t guarantee a good result, it guarantees a fair process, and I believe history will demonstrate that the U.K. made a fundamental error when they adopted Brexit. They’ll be hurt, but the people who’ll really be hurt will be the Republic of Ireland, because their economy is completely integrated into that of the United Kingdom. They’ll suffer.

“In terms of Northern Ireland — which is on the island of Ireland, but remains a part of the United Kingdom — they too will suffer, because the hard border fostered demonization and stereotyping. Hundreds, thousands of people who lived a few hundred yards or a few miles from the border never crossed it, and they had an image of the ‘other,’ which was negative, built on ancient stereotypes. The open border has made a world of difference, in [the] transfer of people, goods, commerce and the reduction of stereotypes and demonization.”

On whether a hard border would mean a return of violence

“It could contribute to that end. It’s very hard to say, there are many factors involved. No one can say with certainty, ‘This plus this will result in that.’ But it’s a contributing factor, and it’s something that should not be tolerated. And I commend the British government and the [U.K.] ambassador [to the U.S. Kim Darroch] for making such an absolutely clear and firm commitment [against a hard border]. The challenge now is to figure out a way to vindicate that commitment and to do it on the ground.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.