An innocent American broker of peace in Northern Ireland

May 02, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

As Marxism sinks into history, perhaps the bloodiest monster on earth is tribalism. Yugoslavia is a daily-deepening bloodbath. Israelis and Arab Palestinians go on savaging each other. In Sri Lanka, once a paradise of peace, slaughter abounds. And so it goes, across the globe, in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and beyond.

Is there a more maddening example of that monster at work than in Northern Ireland? There, about 1 million nominally Protestant people of Scottish or English origin and something more than a half-million predominantly Roman Catholics of Gaelic roots are -- to most outsiders anyway -- indistinguishable in appearance, language and way of life. Yet tiny factions terrorize everyone, under righteous banners of sect and blood line -- and ancient arguments of whether the island should be a single nation. In the last 25 years, that violence has left 3,200 dead and 36,000 wounded, and a society in tatters.

The latest major effort to ease that misery came to climax on Good Friday, April 10, 1998, with a formal agreement by the bulk of the vastly diverse political parties in Northern Ireland, the governments of the Republic of Ireland and of the United Kingdom -- and ultimately by Irish voters, north and south. It established a complex, balanced provincial governing mechanism and a degree of institutional involvement with the Republic of Ireland.

Though far from ironclad, that peace has held together. For their efforts in fashioning it, John Hume, the extraordinary leader of the nonviolent nationalist forces in Northern Ireland, and David Trimble, the strongest unionist leader, were given the Nobel Peace Prize.

The honest broker who wrought that accord was George Mitchell. Appointed to the Senate for Maine in 1980 to fill Secretary of State Edmund Muskie's term, he was a soft-spoken, well-liked lawyer who rose to Senate majority leadership.

He had voluntarily ended his Senate career in 1995, at age 62, had recently married a much younger wife and was about to practice law, when President Clinton asked him to lead a minor economic conference on Northern Ireland. That evolved into a three-and-a-half-year ordeal that is the subject of Mitchell's "Making Peace" (Knopf, 195 pages, $24).

From February 1995 until May 1998, Mitchell writes, he spent "most of my time going to, coming from and working in Northern Ireland. It was the most difficult task I have ever undertaken, far more demanding than the six years I served as Majority Leader of the United States Senate. But it was well worth the effort; the outcome was the most gratifying event of my public life."

He was vaguely aware that his grandfather had come from somewhere in the West of Ireland, but he had never been there and knew very little about the island, north or south. He wasn't particularly experienced in international politics.

He learned fast, hard and well.

For much of my life I have traveled in Ireland and written about it. In late 1981, after one working trip of several weeks, I was back at the Philadelphia Inquirer, committed to writing a series of a dozen or more columns and editorials that were supposed to make the conflicts all perfectly clear.

Richard Ben Cramer, a treasured friend and close colleague who had also written about Ireland, was just back from another foreign assignment. As I was intensely trying to get the whole awfulness into words and sentences, Cramer came for dinner. He already had read drafts of a half-dozen of these pieces, and this evening I gave him very rough, agonized drafts of the final ones.

He quietly read them. Cramer is a very funny, affable, ironic man. Not then. As he finished, he put down his wine glass and slammed his palm on the table.

"Pakenham," he said, "Stop!"

I was startled.

"You know what you're doing?"

"My job," I said.

"You're wrong! You're convinced that if you write the right words you are going to bring complete and eternal peace to Ireland -- and that nobody can do that but you, so you've got to do it."

I felt a wave of anger. I didn't need this ridicule.

Cramer paused, looked at me gravely and said, "If you don't get off this you're going to go crazy -- or kill yourself."

I finished within a few days. Cramer had wrenched me out of the delusion that reason and good will can conquer entrenched hatreds and the chaos they propagate. The articles went smoothly. I didn't go crazy or kill myself.

Neither did George Mitchell. He remained almost eerily cool. Only once did he consider resigning.

For anyone genuinely interested in the subject, this book is obligatory reading, a vital record and set of instructions. His account, though concise, is so excruciatingly particular, so intricate in feintings and prancings, that unless you are enchanted by the story itself, it is a demanding book. Tiny nuances, latent hints, dominated hundreds of hours of talk and listening, of reaching out and pulling back, of watching an eyebrow in a meeting.

The last 30 or 40 pages, the last weeks of negotiations, are most exciting, most revealing. Minute to minute, there are issues and personalities, dynamics that may blow everything up. Enormous amounts of risk-taking and persistence came together to produce the Good Friday Agreement.

Much of the book is dry, straightforward. In his work and in this book, Mitchell's use of language is lean, undramatic. That's very appropriate. One high horror of Ireland is eloquence: People speak movingly, beautifully. But soaring oratory is often quickly followed by the smells of burnt gunpowder and human blood.

Everyone who cares for decent values must pray the Mitchell accord will endure and grow. The alternative is too horrible. And too demoralizingly familiar.

And if the peace endures, maybe there will be a lesson for, say, Bosnia.

Pub Date: 05/02/99

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