Mitchell smiles 248.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Barack Obama's choice of former senator George Mitchell as his Mideast envoy has provoked hope and fear in equal measure on either side of the divide in that region that peace between Israel and the Palestinians has been edged a little closer.
"What a powerful choice," trumpeted J Street, the new-ish pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby in Washington, a view echoed by chief Palestinian negotiator and Fatah spokesman Ahmed Qurei, who praised Mitchell's impartiality, adding: "[He is] someone with experience in... the settlement of political conflicts." But George Mitchell's perceived neutrality is precisely what worried Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League: "He's been meticulously even-handed. So I'm concerned."
Whatever their differences, all three would doubtless agree that George Mitchell earned his reputation as a disinterested peacemaker from his stint in Northern Ireland, where he chaired the talks that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended some three decades of bloodshed and a conflict that at times had seemed so beyond resolution that it was often compared to the Middle East.
The depiction of Mitchell as the architect of a peace agreement that persuaded the IRA to put down its weapons and Northern Ireland's competing Nationalist and Unionist politicians to sit together in the same government, is by now so widely accepted that to question it seems absurd or even mean-spirited.
As The New York Times stated baldly, in an editorial published the day after his appointment: "He negotiated the 1998 Good Friday accord in Northern Ireland, good training for taking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." Or this, in the Boston Globe, two days later: "The Obama administration is hoping that Mitchell will bring the same mixture of toughness and subtlety, patience and impatience, to his new post as special envoy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
So just what was Mitchell's role in securing peace in Northern Ireland? Was he as central and crucial as is widely believed, and what lessons can be drawn from all this of relevance to his new mission?
THERE IS NO BETTER man to turn to for an answer to the first of those questions than Mitchell himself. In Making Peace, his account of the peace talks in Belfast, he gives this description of the final 24 hours leading up to the Good Friday Agreement: "Throughout the day on Thursday, April 9, and on to the night, the parties moved closer to agreement. Blair and Ahern played a central role in these negotiations. They obviously had developed a warm personal relationship; that made progress possible. They didn't just supervise the negotiations; they conducted them. Word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, the compromise came together."
The reader could be forgiven for wondering where Mitchell was when this was going on? Shouldn't he, rather than British premier Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, have been the one putting the words, sentences and paragraphs together at this most critical, final moment? Well, he certainly was in the building while all this was happening, and he was definitely aware of what was going on, but this implied admission that he was peripheral to the main event holds the clue to his real role.
LONG BEFORE the Good Friday Agreement talks were convened, the British and Irish governments had a very good idea of how they ought to end and what sort of agreement could fly. Their difficulty was getting there. They knew that any proposed agreement presented to the rival parties in their names stood an excellent chance of being rejected thanks to the iron rule of Northern Irish politics.
That rule stated: Never accept a suggestion from the other side, because it will likely do you harm and them good. So the Unionists would be inclined to reject anything in the draft agreement they suspected had been the work of the Irish government, while Sinn Fein, the IRA's proxy at the talks, would assume everything coming from the British had to be tainted.
It was a stroke of genius from the two governments to realize that if the proposed agreement were to come instead from the Americans, this difficulty could be sidestepped. Not only that, but the Americans could do something beyond the ability of Britain or Ireland: credibly allocate blame if the talks failed and the violence resumed.
And so Mitchell, the peace envoy appointed by Bill Clinton then as he has been appointed by Barack Obama now, was the chosen channel through which the British and Irish achieved their goal. The draft agreement introduced at the talks had been composed and written by British and Irish officials, but it was presented as if it had come from Mitchell's own hand.
The parties knew the truth and they acted accordingly. The bulk of the negotiations leading up to agreement were between them and the two governments, with Mitchell very secondary to events. But they had been trapped by London and Dublin. The world believed it was Mitchell's deal and none wanted to be the target for US criticism if the talks collapsed.
AND SO A MYTH was born. Mitchell had negotiated the Good Friday Agreement. For a while it was even called the "Mitchell Agreement," but that term soon fell into disuse, not least because there was little appetite to perpetuate the fable among the participants.
None of this is to minimize the very constructive role that Mitchell otherwise played in the peace talks. He was widely liked, scrupulously fair and was tough enough in the dealings he did have with all the parties. But to credit him with winning the peace in Northern Ireland is a step too far. If Obama has chosen him because he believes that he performed the role in Northern Ireland ascribed to him, then he has made a mistake.
There is though an important lesson from Mitchell's time in Northern Ireland. The ploy devised by the British and Irish governments worked for a very simple reason. The Americans were seen by all sides as a largely disinterested party whose judgment and verdict thereby carried extra weight. They had no dog in the fight. The same cannot be said for America's role in the Middle East. The real question arising from Mitchell's appointment is whether Obama wishes to change that.
The writer is author of A Secret History of the IRA and Paisley - From Demagogue to Democrat?