Within three weeks of the Good Friday Agreement, former US Senator George Mitchell has picked up two well deserved trophies for his Trojan mediation efforts at Stormont Buildings: the Philadelphia Peace Prize worth $100,000 and an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin. This seemingly unflappable man with huge reserves of patience and sober analysis has engaged with all the parties involved for a period of over two years and won their confidence. Of course, there have been other conciliators behind the scenes who have got people talking to each other but it was Mitchell who was chosen to facilitate the official negotiations.
Many people have said to me how much they could see mediation and negotiation alive in the happenings at Stormont. There is much that we can learn by reviewing the strategies and process interventions used by George Mitchell's team or other elements that became part of the multi-party talks process. Seven aspects are highlighted here.
1. The conflict assessment undertaken at the beginning of the process. Mitchell met all the stakeholders involved back in November 1995-January 1996 as part of the three-man International Commission on Decommissioning. This was a great way of getting to know all the players and hear their underlying concerns. Much of the credit for getting the Commission off the ground must go to Dick Spring, Ireland's Foreign Affairs Minister.
2. Setting out a number of basic principles at the start of the negotiations. These became known as the Mitchell principles, a set of six anti-violence statements that provided an avenue into all-party talks and a bedrock for the negotiation process. By saying that decommissioning could only happen in parallel to the negotiations, it offered a formula for getting over the hurdle and precondition of paramilitary weapons introduced by John Major. In its place, Mitchell proposed that an absolute commitment "to democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues" should be the test for participation in the talks.
3. Building an inclusive process. While it was John Hume and Gerry Adams who did the background work in 1988 to bring Sinn Fein into the democratic process, what made the Stormont talks process different to previous efforts like Sunningdale in 1974 was the inclusive nature of the talks. The involvement of the UDP and PUP for the loyalists, Sinn Fein for the republicans and the two governments standing side by side created a genuine inter-party dialogue. While the unionists did not talk directly with Sinn Fein, they nevertheless were part of the joint thinking and joint problem-solving process that was generated over the 20 months of discussions at Stormont.
4. Spending time at the outset to negotiate an agreed set of groundrules. Mitchell did not get an easy ride at the beginning. The unionists were very suspicious of an American outsider hustling the parties into an agreement and using Kissinger style muscle mediation. It took two months of negotiations prior to Christmas 1996 before the first point of the agenda was agreed.
5. The use of the deadline of April 9th the day before Good Friday, the start of the Easter holidays. Negotiations have a habit of going on forever and, for everyone's sake, drawing a line in the sand can help people face into the hard bits and take difficult decisions. At the best of times, negotiations are stressful and impossible to sustain them over a length of time without running out of steam. For the final 30 hours, everyone went without sleep to hammer out an agreement.
6. The value of a single text document in bringing complex issues together. Mitchell's team brought all the various strands of negotiations together into a 69-page document the previous Monday night to serve as a draft treaty. While it was considered to be "too green" by the unionists, it served as the text for focused line-by-line negotiations.
7. Mitchell's low profile style with tight media briefings and superpower backing. Balancing all these features, Mitchell's team kept the networking going among the parties. Producing summaries of documents and making precise public briefings, he remained optimistic and encouraged everyone to keep the goal of peace out front. He also had the blessing and personal friendship of President Bill Clinton who opened the White House to all the parties (unionist, nationalist and republican) when they came to Washington for St Patrick's day and other crisis times.
The work does not end here. We all face a post-agreement situation where issues around a reformed police force, the early release of political prisoners and decommissioning of weapons will require sustained dialogue. Glencree Reconciliation Centre plan to continue their informal political dialogue workshops for the Northern Ireland parties.