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George Mitchell, an ideal man for the job

President Barack Obama has moved with commendable speed to tackle some of his most pressing problems, which include the economy and also the dangerously unstable situation in the Middle East.

The latest reports suggest that the President will invite Senator George Mitchell to be his Middle East envoy, and there can hardly be a person on the planet who is better qualified for this complex and sensitive role.

Senator Mitchell is a modest man, but he is regarded deservedly as one of the heroes of the Northern Ireland peace process. At a time when the outlook seemed particularly bleak, George Mitchell demonstrated patience, courage and a painstaking attention to detail as he tried to break the impasse.

One of his greatest assets was to create trust with people on all sides in a much-troubled Northern Ireland. Few of the participants in the political process trusted each other, but they all trusted George Mitchell, and he became the essential catalyst in the development of a most unlikely peace process.

This took shape in the historic Good Friday Agreement, but it took another long and difficult period before the final concord took place. The Rev Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, as well as leaders of the other main parties, made the headlines, but one of the background men who deserved the greatest credit was George Mitchell.

Even after he had been involved in the “heavy-lifting” of the long process leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, Senator Mitchell did not bid us farewell. Instead, he continued to provide valuable service to the wider community as Chancellor of

Queen’s University, and he was regularly on hand to impart some friendly wisdom and advice during periods when it seemed that even the Good Friday Agreement itself would unravel.

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George Mitchell is an experienced and accomplished peacemaker, but it would be a mistake to assume that the Northern Ireland template could simply be used for the Middle East. Both conflicts have involved deep-seated dimensions of religion and nationality, but the problems are not the same.

One of the factors which made peace possible in Northern Ireland was the war-weariness of the main participants, and a realisation that neither side could win. The politicians and the paramilitaries fashioned and accepted a pragmatic compromise that is far from perfect, but which has shown that a lasting peace is possible Sadly, in the Middle East, the protagonists have not yet reached the point of recognising the primacy of politics rather than violence, and they have a long road still to travel. That said, George Mitchell has the wisdom and experience to move the warring parties cautiously in the right direction.

The Middle East conflict is one of the world’s oldest and most intractable problems and, like Northern Ireland, it will take a long time to find a permanent solution. Tragically, however, the suffering is such and the strakes are so high that ho world major world leader can ignore it, and President Obama is making a fresh start. There is no guarantee of success for George Mitchell, but if there is anyone in the world who can make a difference, he is the most likely statesman to do so. He deserves every encouragement.

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