Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Blessed are the Peacemakers

Senator Mitchell surrounded by colleagues on the Congressional Iran-Contra Committee - July 1987

On July 13, 1987, I was standing around with my colleagues in the offices of London Weekend Television (where I worked at the time) watching live TV coverage of the US Congress’s hearings into the Iran-Contra affair. The Reagan administration had been accused of selling arms illegally to Iran and funnelling the proceeds to the right-wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua in direct contravention of the law.
Marine Lieutenant Oliver North had been a key staff member for the National Security Council, which was the government body accused of carrying out these illegal operations. For several days resplendent in his be-medalled uniform Colonel North had testified to the committee, defiantly claiming responsibility for the illegal scheme and for covering it up when word of the scheme had leaked out to the media. He was brash, unrepentant, and adamant that his actions – though illegal – were right. He claimed to have defied the law of the land because of the intensity of his love of God and Country.

On this particular day, it was the turn of a bespectacled wonky-looking Senator to question Colonel North. As his allotted time drew to a close, the Senator in a gentle New England drawl made a powerful statement (watch it here) that firmly but with great courtesy undermined the bombastic testimony of Colonel North.

“Of all the qualities the American people find compelling about you, none is more impressive than your obvious deep devotion to this country. Please remember that others share that devotion and recognize that it is possible for an American to disagree with you on aid to the Contras and still love God and still love this country as much as you do.
Although he is regularly asked to do so, God does not take sides in American politics, and in America disagreement with the policies of the government is not evidence of lack of patriotism... Indeed, it’s the very fact that Americans can criticize their government openly and without fear of reprisal that is the essence of our freedom and that will keep us free.”
This legislator with the large, red-framed glasses and a way with words was Senator George J. Mitchell, Democrat of Maine. From that moment on, I became his devoted fan and I wasn’t alone. The Senator received thousands of letters and phone calls of support from people who were delighted that someone had finally said what they’d been thinking throughout the long investigations into the Iran-Contra affair.

Senator Mitchell went on to be elected Majority Leader of the Senate in 1988 and to fight for health care reform alongside then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. But it wasn’t until after he had retired from the Senate in 1994 that he went on to his greatest achievement so far – brokering a hard-fought peace agreement that ended the decades-long sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.

In the Senate, he had garnered a reputation for being a skilled, patient, and judicious mediator between sometimes implacable opponents and that was what made President Bill Clinton see him as the ideal man for the Northern Ireland job.  

For more than two years, Mitchell flew back and forth across the Atlantic every week – from New York, to London, to Belfast, and back again. The fact that he came to be enormously respected by all factions was the glue that kept the talks going, but as the negotiations neared a climax in April 1998, his master stroke was to set a rigid deadline. As he explained in his 1999 book Making Peace, he told the delegates:

“When we start on Thursday morning, it has to be clear to everyone that we’ll continue until we finish, one way or the other. There can be no discussion of a pause or a break...There’s not going to be a break, not for a week, not for a day, not for an hour. We’re here till we finish. We’ll either get an agreement or we’ll fail to get an agreement. Then we’ll all go out together and explain to the press and the waiting world how we succeeded or why we failed.”
His determination worked. At 5pm on April 10, 1998 - Good Friday – Senator Mitchell was able to announce to the world that “the two governments [of the UK and Ireland] and the political parties of Northern Ireland have reached agreement.” When the agreement was put to the ballot, it was overwhelmingly welcomed by the population on both sides of the border - 71.2 percent of people in Northern Ireland and 94.39 percent in the Republic of Ireland voted Yes. And in the 15 years that have followed, violence in the Province has been minimal and the two communities – Catholic and Protestant – have lived together in cautious harmony.

The Irish writer Colum McCann has called Mitchell “The most incredible politician that I know of from our times, for certain.” In an article in the New York Times in March of this year called “Remembering an Easter Miracle in Northern Ireland,” McCann wrote, “Mr. Mitchell’s great skill was that he learned to embrace silence. He sat at his table and listened to speech after speech... He was unpaid and initially unheralded, but he fell in love with the people and allowed them to talk through their vitriol... He kept listening. He tolerated death threats. He pleaded, he cajoled. And even after the agreement was signed, he understood that only history would bring it home."    

In his most recent novel, Transatlantic, McCann – a National Book Award recipient – ventures to fictionalize George Mitchell’s thoughts and feelings as he strives to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

Welcome to Belfast International. Contents in the overhead bin may have shifted during flight. The stewardesses fuss with his jacket. He is whisked through security once more, out past the small cafĂ© and the newsagent’s where he takes a quick glance at the newspaper headlines on the small metal racks. Nothing of damage. A good sign. Outside, the vague smell of farmland manure hangs in the air. Three cars waiting. Gerald, his driver, greets him with a nod and a lift of the case. In the car Gerald passes back a sheet of numbers. A small jump in his chest that it might be bad news, but it’s the baseball scores, copied from Reuters, handwritten. He scans them quickly. Opening Day. Ah, yes, Hail and hallelujah. The Sox have won.”

Thus can great political acts inspire literature.

Holding the signed Good Friday Agreement - with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahearne (left)
and British Prime Minister Tony Blair (right)- April 1998

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