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
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.
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