Jet lag and the patience of Job Negotiator: Former Sen. George J. Mitchell has put his life on hold to try to lead the factions in Northern Ireland to a peaceful settlement.

Sun Journal

January 30, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- He could have been a U.S. Supreme Court justice. He might even have been baseball's commissioner.

Instead, former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell has become a jet-lagged, unpaid peace negotiator.

Shuttling across the Atlantic Ocean so many times that he has lost count, Mitchell has been locked in talks with everyone from starched government bureaucrats to former gunmen in a bid to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

For more than 18 months, the Democrat from Maine, a former majority leader of the U.S. Senate, has chaired all-party talks designed to carve out a settlement between majority Protestants and minority Roman Catholics. The two have grievances over political power and national allegiances stretching back centuries.

They have turned to Mitchell to act as an honest broker, who can listen to all sides and perhaps lead all to a deal to end decades of terrorist violence that has claimed more than 3,200 lives.

Mitchell, 64, known for his persistence and patience while presiding in the Senate, has been surprised by the glacial pace of talks over Northern Ireland's future. They began negotiating in June 1996. And they're still working to beat a May deadline imposed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"It has been very slow," Mitchell says. "Painstakingly slow. Before I came here, I thought the Senate was the slowest institution which I had been associated with."

Even as he seeks to forge a compromise that may still be beyond the reach and imagination of the participants, Mitchell earns high marks for taking the peace process this far.

"He has the patience of Job," says Martin McGuinness, chief negotiator for Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. "Without George Mitchell, the talks might have broken down."

David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, the main Protestant party, says Mitchell is "absolutely impartial, impeccably fair. George has handled a very difficult process with great skill and tact. He has shown incredible patience. I'm amazed."

Like others who have sought to change the course of history in Northern Ireland, Mitchell has been sucked into a process -- and a conflict -- where bullets often outweigh ballots and where each day may bring a new crisis.

Next month marks three years since Mitchell first became immersed in Northern Ireland. From a supporting part as organizer of an economic development conference, his role has spiraled to chief peace broker.

"I feel this is an important objective," he says. "In a small way I have a chance to do something meaningful and good that could have a positive impact on the lives of people. On the other hand, it has proven to be a tremendous burden. It is very difficult to reconcile this with my own life back in the States."

Mitchell is a weekly commuter to London and Belfast, trying to squeeze in a home life in New York with his wife, Heather, and 3-month-old son, Andrew.

He could have settled down to a more comfortable lifestyle once he announced in early 1994 that he would retire from the Senate.

President Clinton wanted to name him to the Supreme Court, but Mitchell declined. Major League Baseball owners sounded him out on becoming their commissioner before deciding they would rather wage a labor war against their players.

So Mitchell slipped from the Senate and into private law practice. But he soon found himself tugged into Northern Ireland's political landscape. Clinton persuaded him to organize a 1995 Washington trade conference and then to remain with the trade mission for another six months.

At the urging of the British prime minister of the time, John Major, Mitchell became an all-purpose problem solver for the British province. In June 1996 he took up a six-month post as chairman of the all-party talks.

"Here I am in 1998, and it's still going," Mitchell says.

Reading 25 books, poring over newspapers and meeting with the peace principals, Mitchell tried to catch up on centuries of history and hate. He came to understand that history hangs over Northern Ireland like a storm cloud.

"I've come to believe that while too little knowledge is a bad thing, too much is a bad thing, too," he says.

"One of the great things about Americans is they are very forward looking. There is not a lot of time spent agonizing over their history. Here, people know their history. They are steeped in it. They refer to it often. There is clearly a much greater role in shaping current activities. It is a common event here of people to state or suggest that they can't change current policy because of a past event."

Mitchell has sought to break down the barriers.

He is presiding over a complicated set of talks that bring together the British and Irish governments and eight political parties in Northern Ireland. All are trying to come up with a deal to solve what appears to be an intractable problem. The majority Protestants favor Northern Ireland's continued union with Great Britain. The minority Catholics seek to unite with the southern Republic of Ireland.

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