Tuesday 20 March 2018

Key peace process figure Mitchell held private talks with UK over Border fears

Mr Mitchell held talks out of concern for the North Picture: Gerry Mooney
Mr Mitchell held talks out of concern for the North Picture: Gerry Mooney
Colm Kelpie

Colm Kelpie

Former US senator George Mitchell, who helped broker the Good Friday Agreement, has had personal discussions with the British government amid concerns about the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland.

But he has ruled out taking on any future mediation role in the North.

In an interview with the Irish Independent from his New York office, Mr Mitchell said that while he respected the outcome of the UK referendum, he disagreed with Brexit.

He said he shared concerns about the potential economic impact of a return to a hard Border.

"While it will be necessary to figure out a different way, let us hope that it doesn't mean a resumption of the tight Border controls. I know that the British government is keenly aware of it.

"I've had personal discussions with the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and his government is very well aware of the consequences of what happens, and I hope very much that in the course of these discussions they will take that into account," he said, ahead of his International Human Rights lecture address, organised by The Mary Robinson Centre, in Ballina, Co Mayo, on Thursday.

Mr Mitchell said he was in Dublin the day of the referendum vote, and Belfast the following day, and was immediately conscious of the concerns.

The former special envoy to Northern Ireland said he hopes and believes that the parties in the North can resolve their current difficulties, even though the resumption of power sharing in the wake of the March 2 election has proved elusive. A potential deal between the parties is now not likely until after the June 8 UK general election at the earliest.

The Good Friday Agreement, Mr Mitchell said, while a significant achievement, did not by itself guarantee peace, political stability or reconciliation.

"I said [after the peace agreement was brokered] that there would be many difficult decisions ahead. Indeed the agreement itself explicitly deferred to the future some decisions that we couldn't resolve at that time," Mr Mitchell said.

But he said there was nothing unusual about "domestic controversies in democratic societies". He cited the potential US government shutdown this week over the country's budget, Brexit and the French election.

"I don't think that we should hold Northern Ireland to a standard that is hard to be met anywhere in the western world," he added.

"I think it's possible for them to get back together and I hope very much that they will."

Mr Mitchell revealed that he travelled to Derry to visit Martin McGuinness in hospital just weeks before his death.

"I was in Belfast, I spoke at Queen's University, and I took the occasion to drive to Derry and visit Martin McGuinness and his family in his hospital room," he said.

He said Mr McGuinness, along with the other Northern Ireland leaders at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, including John Hume and David Trimble, deserve credit for "the courage and the vision that they showed in reaching the agreement". Mr Mitchell was due to speak at a memorial service in New York for Mr McGuinness last night.

Speaking of his visit to see the former deputy first minister, he added: "We spoke for quite a long time, mostly reminiscing and laughing about some of the humorous events that occurred during our time together in the negotiations."

Asked what he would say to those who have suffered at the hands of IRA violence and may disagree with recent tributes paid to Mr McGuinness, Mr Mitchell said: "Each person is entitled to his or her view, I accept whatever position anyone takes. I was aware of his past when I met him.

"The objective that I had was to try to bring the conflict to an end, and in that process he was a significant contributing factor and in the subsequent governance of Northern Ireland."

On President Donald Trump, Mr Mitchell said it was clear that his first 100 days have been "less successful than those of most other presidents".

"But I think there remains opportunity for progress in terms of our domestic economy and hopefully in foreign affairs where he has modified or reversed several of the controversial positions that he took during the campaign," he said.

Mr Mitchell also said the technological revolution facing the world will be seen by historians as significant as the industrial revolution of the 19th century.

"There was fear, anxiety, upheaval, some violence. That's going on today," he said. "While it has created wealth, it is also wealth that has not been distributed throughout the whole society.

"While many people are beneficiaries of the revolution, many feel they are victims. No society has yet figured out a way to retain the benefits, while seeing that they're distributed more fairly throughout society, That really is the challenge of the 21st century in economic terms in my judgment."

Irish Independent

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