Belfast Telegraph

George Mitchell: The real heroes were the people of Northern Ireland and their political leaders

George Mitchell

Twenty years ago the Government of the United Kingdom, the Government of Ireland, and eight Northern Ireland political parties declared their support for the Agreement that has come to be known as the Good Friday Agreement, and also as the Belfast Agreement. In the current difficult political climate in Northern Ireland I think it useful for all to recall and to heed the powerful and moving words by which the Governments and the parties pledged their support for the Agreement.

The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. But we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all.

We are committed to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between these islands.

We affirm our total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues, and our opposition to any use or threat of force by others for any political purpose, whether in regard to this agreement or otherwise.

For 20 years, the Agreement has accomplished the important purpose of ending the sectarian violence that plagued Northern Ireland for so much of its history.

But in the life of a society, as in the lives of individuals, new challenges emerge and new answers are needed. In Northern Ireland these new challenges can be met if the current leaders of Northern Ireland, the UK, and Ireland, can rekindle the spirit of partnership and mutual respect that led to the Agreement in 1998.

Much has been said and written about the long and difficult road that led to that Agreement. Many have deservedly received credit for their work: Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and his predecessors Albert Reynolds and John Bruton; and Prime Minister Tony Blair and his predecessor, John Major.

They and their governments laid the foundation for the negotiations and then brought those negotiations to a successful conclusion. They were ably assisted by a brilliant group of career officials.

Bill Clinton was the first American president to make peace in Northern Ireland a central objective of his administration, and he embraced that effort with energy and perseverance.

But the real heroes of the Agreement were the people of Northern Ireland and their political leaders. The people supported the effort to achieve agreement and afterwards they voted overwhelmingly to ratify it. Their political leaders, in dangerous and difficult circumstances, after lifetimes devoted to conflict, summoned extraordinary courage and vision and reached agreement, at great risk to themselves, their families, and their political careers.

Throughout the Western world it is fashionable to demean, to insult, to ridicule political leaders. Certainly, much of it is deserved. But we don't pay enough attention, or tribute to those political leaders who do dare greatly and succeed. In Northern Ireland these were ordinary men and women. But after 700 days of failure they joined in one day of success and they changed the course of history.

The current problems in Northern Ireland are difficult and serious, and must be resolved. While we should not underestimate the current challenges, neither should we overlook the enormous progress that has been made. Northern Ireland today is a much different, much safer, much better place than it was 20 years ago.

I hope that as they today reflect on their responsibilities, the current leaders of Northern Ireland, of Ireland, of the United Kingdom, and of the European Union will look back 20 years to what their predecessors did. In that effort they deserve and should receive the full and unstinting support of the people they represent.

But, at the same time, we should not hold Northern Ireland to a higher standard than we apply to others. Every society, including the US, the UK and Ireland, has social and political problems. What we must do is to reaffirm to the people and the leaders of Northern Ireland our continuing involvement, our strong and unwavering encouragement and support, our trade and tourism.

The UK Government and the European Union have publicly committed themselves to a Brexit outcome that does not re-establish a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We must accept and support and insist on that outcome. And the governments of both the US and the UK must avoid any decisions that cost jobs and create hardship.

I am an American, and very proud of it, but a large part of my heart and of my emotions will forever be with the people of Northern Ireland. They deserve peace, prosperity, and reconciliation.

Senator George Mitchell was US Special Envoy for Northern Ireland and chaired the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement

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