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George Mitchell held private talks with UK over border fears

By Colm Kelpie

Former US Senator George Mitchell, who helped broker the Good Friday Agreement, has had personal discussions with the British Government amid concerns about the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland.

But he has ruled out taking on any future mediation role in Northern Ireland.

Speaking from his New York office, Mr Mitchell also revealed that he travelled to Londonderry to visit Martin McGuinness in hospital just weeks before his death.

"I was in Belfast, I spoke at Queen's University, and I took the occasion to drive to Derry and visit Martin McGuinness and his family in his hospital room," he said.

He said Mr McGuinness, along with the other Northern Ireland leaders at the time of the 1998 Agreement, including John Hume and David Trimble, deserve credit for "the courage and the vision that they showed in reaching the agreement". Mr Mitchell was due to speak at a memorial service in New York for Mr McGuinness last night.

Speaking of his visit to see the former Deputy First Minister, he added: "We spoke for quite a long time, mostly reminiscing and laughing about some of the humorous events that occurred during our time together in the negotiations."

Asked what he would say to those who have suffered at the hands of IRA violence and may disagree with recent tributes paid to Mr McGuinness, Mr Mitchell said: "Each person is entitled to his or her view, I accept whatever position anyone takes. I was aware of his past when I met him. The objective that I had was to try to bring the conflict to an end, and in that process he was a significant contributing factor and in the subsequent governance of Northern Ireland."

He also said that while he respected the outcome of the UK referendum, he disagreed with Brexit and has concerns about the impact of a return to a hard border.

"While it will be necessary to figure out a different way, let us hope that it doesn't mean a resumption of the tight border controls. I know that the British Government is keenly aware of it," he said.

"I've had personal discussions with the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and his government are very well aware of the consequences of what happens, and I hope very much that in the course of these discussions they will take that into account," he said, ahead of his International Human Rights lecture address, organised by The Mary Robinson Centre, in Ballina on Thursday.

Mr Mitchell said he was in Dublin the day of the referendum vote, and Belfast the following day, and was immediately conscious of the concerns.

The former special envoy to Northern Ireland said he hopes and believes that the Stormont parties can resolve their current difficulties, even though the resumption of power-sharing in the wake of the March 2 election has proved elusive. A potential deal between the parties is now not likely until after the June 8 UK election at the earliest.

The Good Friday Agreement, Mr Mitchell said, while a significant achievement, did not by itself guarantee peace, political stability or reconciliation.

"I said [after the peace agreement was brokered] that there would be many difficult decisions ahead. Indeed the agreement itself explicitly deferred to the future some decisions that we couldn't resolve at that time," Mr Mitchell said.

But he said there was nothing unusual about "domestic controversies in democratic societies". He cited the potential US government shutdown this week over the country's budget, Brexit and the French election.

"I don't think that we should hold Northern Ireland to a standard that is hard to be met anywhere in the western world," he added. "I think it's possible for them to get back together and I hope very much that they will, in the interests of their people."

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