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George Mitchell
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• George Mitchell on the Good Friday Agreement, 1998

George Mitchell

George Mitchell won admiration from across the political divide in Northern Ireland for his work to boost the peace process.

The former United States senator received almost unanimous praise for his skill and patience in chairing the Northern Ireland peace talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement.

Following the failure to set up devolved power in the province, Senator Mitchell acted as a facilitator in the review of the deadlocked process, helping to find a way to implement an inclusive powersharing executive and the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons.

Senator Mitchell's efforts were rewarded in November 1999 when Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists made statements expressing support for these twin aims. The IRA followed this by saying it would appoint a middleman to discuss handing over its weapons soon after the executive had been set up, and the Ulster Unionist council also backed the Mitchell plan.

These measures led the way to the formation of the executive.

A triumph for patience

In the Good Friday negotiations, Senataor Mitchell had been patient when talks were bogged down in endless arguments about procedures and agendas.

When the debate moved on to matters of substance, he demonstrated a shrewd understanding of the intricacies of the local political situation.

The former majority leader in the US senate had first become involved in Northern Ireland as part of a White House effort to boost the local economy. That role soon extended to considering the question of how to get rid of paramilitary weapons, and then to the job of chairing the Stormont peace talks.

Senator Mitchell later conceded that he flew to Northern Ireland to oversee the negotiations between the two governments and the main parties "wrapped in a cocoon of naivete."

He remained intensely involved in the 1998 talks process, at some considerable personal cost, away from home at a time of family bereavement and when his wife was pregnant. His patience was not always admired. Some critics say he gave too much latitude to participants in the talks who were over-fond of their own opinions.

But after a final 36 hours of non-stop negotiations, he led the parties to an agreement on 10 April 1998.

"I took a deep breath and felt tears welling in my eyes. I had to sit down. " Senator Mitchell later said in his book Making Peace.

The calibre of his work in Northern Ireland led to Senator Mitchell to become involved in another of the world's apparently unsolvable conflicts, that between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

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