Simon Carswell, Washington correspondent for The Irish Times, interviewed Mitchell at the event described below. He later filed this piece for his paper’s website.
Seventeen years on from the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell recalled the peace talks got off to “a very rocky start” due to the long history of mistrust in Northern Ireland and “no habit of listening to the other side.”
“They were geniuses and innovators in finding things to disagree about, but like walls of granite when it came to things to agree about,” Mitchell told an Irish Network-DC audience 6 May at the Dupont Circle Hotel. The former special envoy is promoting a new memoir, “The Negotiator.”
As bad, all the parties frequently got bogged down in “tremendously repetitious presentations,” Mitchell said. And on top of all that, the American had never visited Northern Ireland before. He struggled with Ulster’s distinctive accent.
“I didn’t understand a thing they were saying the first six months,” he said with a grin.
Mitchell said that women in Northern Ireland not directly involved in the talks played a huge role in the peace process. He did not mention fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton, who some critics accuse of trying to inflate her role in the talks as First Lady in her husband’s administration, especially now that she is running for the presidency.
Mitchell said that Northern Ireland too often gets an unfair rap for “violence and dysfunction.” He tells people, “Look, I just came from the U.S.” But he acknowledged the “peace walls” that still separate Catholic and Protestant sections of Belfast. He added, “Reconciliation comes very slowly.”
Prior to being appointed special envoy to Northern Ireland in 1995, Mitchell, 81, had only briefly visited the Republic of Ireland during his Senate years. His father had been born of Irish immigrant parents but was orphaned at a young age. Growing up, Mitchell said, “I didn’t have any sense of my Irish heritage.” Becoming so deeply involved with people on both sides of the partitioned island “filled a void I didn’t know I had.”