WASHINGTON — Recounting personal tales of nonstop talks that led to the Good Friday agreement, former Sen. George Mitchell on Wednesday tried to reassure the international community that the deal is the best chance to ensure a peaceful future for Northern Ireland.
Just nine days before the ballots on the deal, Mitchell said the pact was grounded in the principle of self-determination, that the people of Northern Ireland would run their own government and decide if they ever wanted to reunite with the Republic of Ireland.
“It should be up to the people of Northern Ireland to determine their future,” he said during an hour-long address at the National Press Club, adding, “I think that’s a principle all Americans can understand.”
Voters in Northern Ireland will go to the polls May 22 for a ratification vote on the deal negotiated by the former lawyer from Waterville, who said his days of trying to read the pulse of Maine voters was no match for understanding the will of a tiny nation divided by religion.
A simultaneous referendum will be held in Ireland, which must reject its constitutional claim to Northern Ireland for the deal to be approved. Regardless of the outcomes, Mitchell said his work in Belfast — which began 3 1/2 years ago as an economic envoy for President Clinton — was done.
He visited Belfast last week for the final time before the votes, and returned to his work as a Washington lawyer and lobbyist, traveling to and from New York to be with his wife and 6-month-old son. After his address, he said he is longing to spend most of the summer at Mount Desert Island.
But Wednesday’s talk, before an international audience of journalists, including prominent writers from Dublin and Belfast, attempted to drive home Mitchell’s belief that the Good Friday deal could not heal the wounds of decades-long violence, but would offer a chance for lasting peace.
“No one can foresee the future, but surely no one wants the past to become the future in Northern Ireland,” Mitchell said.
The 69-page deal focused on two tracks, ensuring representation for Catholics, the minority, in the new Northern Ireland legislature, and setting up an Ireland-Northern Ireland economic commission.
If a majority of voters in both regions ever approved it, Northern Ireland could reunite with the Irish Republic — a distant hope, considering a huge majority of Protestants oppose this, along with most Catholics in the north, at present.
But the deal is vague on some details, particularly how the new Northern Ireland legislature would ensure that Catholic and paramilitary groups turn over their stockpiles of weapons. Fringe groups on both sides have seized on these issues in their campaign to thwart the deal, but Mitchell rejected their attacks as last-ditch efforts to preserve the status quo.
“There has not been a credible, viable, or persuasive alternative presented to this agreement,” he said.
In fact, those fringe groups deserve a bit of the credit for spurring the frenzied talks that led to the deal. In January, after a series of murders and a general escalation of violence in Belfast, Mitchell decided that the peace talks were not making enough headway, spinning off endlessly in discussions that yielded nothing.
Recounting his days as Senate majority leader, he asked the governments of Ireland and Britain and representatives of eight political parties from Northern Ireland to agree to a deadline. Mitchell chose Holy Thursday, April 9, as an added inspiration, and all parties agreed.
“Everything that needed to be said had been said many times over,” he explained.
By the time all of the parties had assembled Holy Thursday morning, having reviewed and revised draft peace proposals from Mitchell, the former senator laid out a bold declaration: No one would leave the negotiations until they were finished.
Peace or failure. “We’re going to stay until we’re done,” he told the group.
By 5:30 p.m. Good Friday, all parties had agreed to the deal, taking brave political risks and enduring personal agony in the process. (Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern attended his mother’s funeral the day before the final talks began.)
“One of the finest examples of leadership in a democratic society I have ever seen,” Mitchell said.
Throughout the process, Mitchell said, he was driven by the birth of his son, and frequently wondered what his son’s life would be like if he had been born in Belfast rather than New York. He found out that 61 babies were born in Northern Ireland Oct. 16, the same day as his son.
“The aspirations of parents everywhere are the same,” he said. “I believe that the parents of those 61 babies in Northern Ireland want the same things for their children that I want for my son, and they have a right to expect them.”
He added, “This [Good Friday deal] is the only way forward for their childre