Tough lessons from Ireland’s push for peace

The Kennedy Library convened a special forum on Tuesday night that drew an overflow crowd to the Stephen A. Smith room overlooking Dorchester Bay. The draw was two-fold: The evening included a screening of a new, 90-minute documentary that explores the visionary politician John Hume, the architect of the peace process that ultimately led to a cessation of sectarian violence and viable power-sharing between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

An equally compelling attraction for many was the evening’s most notable guest speaker: Former US Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, the American tapped by President Bill Clinton to serve as the key broker of the peace process.

Mitchell, at age 84, remains one of the most respected, eloquent, and accomplished statesmen of our time. The Boston Globe’s Kevin Cullen, who moderated Tuesday’s post-screening conversation with Mitchell and filmmaker Maurice Fitzpatrick, noted that Mitchell should have received the Nobel Prize as well— a comment that drew a loud ovation from the crowd.

In 1996, Clinton persuaded Mitchell, who was then stepping aside as the Senate’s majority leader— to go to Ireland on his behalf. Dispatching Mitchell sent a very clear message that the Clinton administration was not just grandstanding on the Irish question. The president was committed to getting a deal and doubled-down by thrusting his best available asset into the process.

Mitchell, who was raised by blue-collar parents, had virtually no connection to the Irish crisis, on any side. He had Irish roots— but his father was an orphan who knew nothing of his ancestral roots. Unlike the politicians from Boston and New York who were fully embroiled in the Troubles of the ‘60s and ‘70s— and the domestic pressures brought to bear by Irish Catholics here in the US— he was unencumbered by tribal loyalties.

The senator was an inspired choice to bring the disparate, warring factions to the table at a crucial time. Even so, the negotiations were nearly derailed multiple times. Two delegates to the talks were murdered during pauses in the prolonged, two-year process. In January 1997, Mitchell —convinced that the multi-lateral talks were spiraling into abject failure— set a hard deadline of April 1998 for all parties to reach agreement.

Most thought his push would fail and unleash a new wave of tit-for-tat killings and terror bombings. Instead, it proved a master stroke, as embodied in the Good Friday Agreement, one of the greatest achievements of the Clinton era and certainly a watershed moment in Ireland’s history.

Next April will mark the 20th anniversary of the agreement, which has brought a lasting peace, if not full equality or reconciliation, to the North.
Tuesday’s film and discussion was uplifting at times. But it was also a chilling reminder of the delicate nature of statecraft and international relations, and of how far removed we are in the present-day American experience from anything approaching the rational, coherent, and capable force for peace that marked Mitchell’s mission.

The documentary, “In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America,” focuses mainly on Hume’s long and fruitful campaign to lobby America’s most influential Irish-American political leaders to the cause of Northern Ireland. Hume made countless visits to Boston, New York, Chicago— and, of course, Washington— to build a network of allies in the House, Senate and, eventually, the White House. It was a wise course that accounted for the hefty influence of Irish Americans, whose fealty to their ancestral homeland proved pivotal in breaking the stalemate across the ocean.

Twenty years later, as the US retreats from its position of honor on the world stage, perhaps the roles will soon be reversed. Our Irish cousins recoiled from the menace of our present regime long before our electorate saw fit to install it in power. Our partisan combatants would do well, perhaps, to find wisdom in the lessons of the Good Friday Agreement.

After the film, Mitchell was asked what he would do if he were still in the US Senate under this present administration. His sage counsel was to find common ground across the partisan divide in both chambers of Congress. But he also warned all who would listen: Money has corrupted both parties in ways that it did not in his years of public service. It is, he warned, a deeply troubling threat to our democracy— and one that won’t go away with the end of this current administration.