Belfast Telegraph

Spirit of Belfast Agreement could help politicians agree deal, says George Mitchell as he hits out at Lyra killing

Former US senator says violence will not solve problems

George Mitchell
George Mitchell
Lyra McKee
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Former senator George Mitchell has called on Northern Ireland's politicians to summon up the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement in their efforts to reach a deal to restore power-sharing.

The ex-US senator, who is due to visit Belfast and Dublin next week, would not be drawn on whether an independent chair was needed to drive the Stormont talks, and said that was a matter for the two governments.

In an interview last night with the Belfast Telegraph and the Press Association, he also condemned the killing of journalist Lyra McKee.

"She had huge promise and potential and to have her life cut short in these circumstances was a real tragedy," he said.

"I've said many, many times that violence is not the way to solve the problems of Northern Ireland, never has been, isn't now and will not be. Political differences can be resolved through democratic and peaceful means."

Mr Mitchell, who chaired the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, will on Monday receive an award for peace-building from CO3, the leadership organisation for the third sector.

A fresh round of talks to restore devolution began at Stormont earlier this week.

Mr Mitchell said: "My hope is that the current political leaders in Northern Ireland will be able to summon the same degree of courage and vision that their predecessors summoned 21 years ago when they did enter into the Good Friday Agreement."

He said it would be "presumptuous of me as an outsider" to comment on whether an independent chair was needed to drive forward the talks as it was a matter purely for the people of Northern Ireland and the two governments.

Mr Mitchell said it was important "not to be chained to the past" and to "view everything solely in the way it was". Rather, politicians should be primarily focused on the future.

He urged local politicians to "at least get past this set of problems, move to the future, particularly in restoring self government to Northern Ireland".

He said: "I think they are struggling in a complex social and political environment facing many of the same issues that are in the US, the UK, many of the European countries.

"It isn't easy to be a political leader, particularly in a democratic society these days."

However, the retired Senator stressed that politicians have an "obligation" to those who elected them. "So I am somewhat sympathetic to the problems they have, but I also think that nobody forced anyone to run for public office, and those who hold positions expend a lot of effort and money to get there, and once they are there they have some obligation to the people who elected them and the people who they serve, to try and deal with the issues," he said.

"While I understand that these are hard issues, if you mention them against the complexity, difficulty and the prior violence of those who were dealing with issues in 1998, I think they certainly ought to be capable of resolution now, and in a way that moves society forward.

"The political parties that are able to do that will benefit from it. I think the people of Ireland want to govern themselves, I don't think they want a permanent situation of an inactive Assembly and direct rule from Westminster."

Asked if the White House should perhaps play a greater role in Northern Ireland affairs, Mr Mitchell said he hoped that President Trump was familiar with the issues and that he, or others in his administration, were keeping a careful watch on events and would make themselves available to help if needed.

Nora Smith, chief executive of CO3, said her organisation wanted to honour Mr Mitchell and also to "take inspiration from him".

"With no government in place and all the uncertainty and division that Brexit is causing, we need strong leaders to bring us together more than ever," she said.

"When we look back at what Mr Mitchell played such a leading part in achieving, his extraordinary ability to bring people together seems even more remarkable.

"We owe him a great debt of gratitude and we need leaders like that today."

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