“After 30 years of bitter and bloody divisions, a courageous, non-violent transformation in Northern Ireland seems imminent. Senator George Mitchell has been both a vital catalyst and a patient shepherd to the peace negotiations. His persistence and persuasion has guided the negotiations and allowed this breakthrough agreement, with its redefinition of self-determination of peoples, to emerge”
Liberty Medal International Selection Commission
Senator George J. Mitchell
July 4, 1998
It’s an honor for me to receive the Liberty Medal in the birthplace of American democracy.
Over two centuries ago a small group of men met here in a constitutional convention that was one of the turning points in human history. They had as their central objective the prevention of tyranny in America. They had lived under a British king. They did not want there ever to be an American king.
They were brilliantly successful. We’ve had 42 presidents and no kings. The framework for government they created enabled the newly United States to become the strongest economic and military power in the world.
But necessary as it is, that power is not the ultimate source of American influence. The United States was a great nation long before it was a great military power. That’s because our greatness lies in our ideals.
The American constitution is more than a framework for self-government. It’s an act of political and literary genius. The Bill of Rights is the most concise and eloquent statement ever written of the right of the individual to be free from oppression by government.
That’s one side of the coin of liberty. The other is the need for everyone to have a fair chance to enjoy the blessings of liberty. To a man without a job, to a woman who can’t get decent health care for her child, to the young people who lack the skills needed to compete in a world of technology—they don’t think much about liberty; they worry about coping day to day.
For many years that was true of the people of Northern Ireland.
Violence and fear settled over their beautiful land like a heavy, unyielding fog. The bombings and the riots hurt the economy. So unemployment rose, with violence, in a deadly cycle of escalating misery.
Finally, after years of effort, the British and Irish Governments were able to get peace negotiations underway in June of 1996. At their invitation I agreed to serve as Chairman.
It was the longest, most difficult negotiation I’ve ever been involved with. Often, no progress seemed possible. But somehow, we kept going.
There was an especially bleak and dangerous time in the Christmas season of 1997 and the months that followed. There was a sharp increase in sectarian killings; an effort by men of violence on both sides to destroy the process. Early this year I concluded that a deadline for the negotiations was necessary if there was to be any chance of success. I decided on the Easter weekend, which had the advantage of having special significance in Irish history.
The talks had already gone on for too long, nearly two years. During that time, everything that needed to be said had been said, many times over.
I served in the United States Senate for nearly 15 years, six of them as majority leader. I didn’t realize it at the time, but as I sat through long nights there, listening to endless filibusters, the Lord, in the mysterious way in which He works, was preparing me for the Northern Ireland negotiations.
On March 30th, I met with all of the participants in the negotiations: two governments and eight political parties. I recommended to them a final deadline of midnight, Thursday, April 9th. They all agreed. They wanted to reach an agreement. They recognized that there had to be a deadline to force a decision.
The negotiations would continue without a break until we finished. I told them “We’ll either get an agreement or we’ll fail to get an agreement. Then, we’ll all go out together and explain to the media, and the waiting world, how we succeeded or why we failed.”
There were non-stop negotiations for the last day and a half. The prime ministers of the United Kingdom and Ireland, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, came to Belfast and showed true leadership. There wouldn’t have been an agreement without their personal involvement. During the night, President Clinton played a crucial role, calling several of the participants. Finally, in the late afternoon of Good Friday, we reached agreement.
It was long and difficult, but it was the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done.
It’s important to recognize that the agreement does not, by itself, guarantee a durable peace, political stability, or reconciliation. It makes them possible. But there will have to be a lot of effort, in good faith, for a long time, to achieve those goals.
I believe the agreement will endure because it’s fair and balanced. It requires the use of exclusively democratic and peaceful means to resolve differences, and it commits all of the parties to the total disarmament of paramilitary organizations. It stresses the need for mutual respect and tolerance between communities. It’s based on the principle that the future of Northern Ireland should be decided by the people of Northern Ireland.
I’d like to briefly share with you some of the lessons of my three and a half years in Northern Ireland.
I believe there’s no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. They’re created and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings. No matter how ancient the conflict, no matter how hateful, no matter how hurtful, peace can prevail.
But only if those who stand for peace and justice are supported and encouraged, while those who do not are opposed and condemned.
Seeking an end to conflict is not for the timid or the tentative. There must be a clear and determined policy not to yield to the men of violence. Over and over, they tried to destroy the process in Northern Ireland; at times they nearly succeeded.
As we saw this week, they’re still trying. The burning of ten Catholic churches in Belfast was an act of appalling ignorance and hatred. It must be totally condemned. But to succumb to the temptation to retaliate would give the criminals what they want: escalating sectarian violence and the end of the peace process. The way to respond is to swiftly bring those who committed this crime to justice and go forward in peace.
That means there must be an endless supply of patience and perseverance. Sometimes the mountains seem so high and the rivers so wide that it’s hard to continue the journey. But no matter how bleak the outlook, the search for peace must go on.
There’s a lesson for our country, too. Although we must be strong, and prepared to use that strength where necessary, the U.S. can often play a critical role without using force or spending a lot of money. Because we have the most powerful military force in history, some in our country appear to feel that our rhetoric must be as loud as our weaponry. But the opposite is true: the stronger we are, the less we need to brag about it. At the right time and place American idealism and optimism, combined with patience, understanding, and encouragement, can be valuable weapons in the quest for peace.
I’m hopeful about the future in Northern Ireland, because the clear and strong desire of the people is for peace and political stability. They want their children to have a decent chance in life.
Before I entered the Senate I had the privilege of serving as a Federal Judge. In that position I had great power. What I most enjoyed was presiding over citizenship ceremonies. A group of people who’d come from every part of the world, who’d gone through all the required procedures, gathered before me in a federal courtroom. There I administered to them the oath of allegiance to the United States and I made them Americans.
It was always emotional for me, because my mother was an immigrant from Lebanon, my father the orphan son of immigrants from Ireland. They had no education and they worked all their lives at very low-paying jobs. But because of their efforts, and, more importantly, because of the openness of American society, I, their son, was able to become the Majority Leader of the United States Senate.
Afterward, I spoke personally with each new American. I asked them where they came from, how they came, why they came. Their stories were different, but they were all inspiring, and through them ran a common theme, best expressed by a young Asian. When I asked why he had come, he replied, in slow and halting English, “I came because here in America everybody has a chance.”
A young man who’d been an American for just a few minutes summed up the meaning of our country in a single sentence. Here, everybody has a chance.
I was one of those who had a chance, and I thank God for the many people who gave me a helping hand along the way. Then, in a way that I didn’t seek or expect, I was given the opportunity to help others to have a chance. That they are in Ireland, the land of my father’s heritage, was just a coincidence. That I was able to help was what mattered.
It’s hard to have hope in a society dominated by fear and violence. And so I, who was helped by so many, did what I could to help: to end the violence, to banish the fear, to enable the people of Northern Ireland to live in peace and reconciliation.
Peace must come first. Then elections and institutions to help peace endure. Then, most difficult but most important, the decline of hate and the rise of hope. That will take a long time.
So in Northern Ireland, as everywhere, it is to the children that we must look for a better and brighter future.
Last October my wife gave birth to our son. Sixty-one babies were born in Northern Ireland on the same day. A little later, on the long flight back across the Atlantic, I wondered what life would be like for my son if he’d been born in Northern Ireland. What would life be like for those 61 children if they’d been born Americans?
The aspirations of parents everywhere are the same: for their children to be healthy and happy, well cared for and well educated, able to go as high and as far as their talent and willingness to work will take them.
I want that for my son. And I want it for those 61 children in Northern Ireland. If, in part as a result of my efforts, they and others like them lead more secure and meaningful lives, I will be fulfilled.
I accept this medal with gratitude and humility, not just as an individual but as a representative of the many people who worked to bring peace to Northern Ireland, some of them for many years. In their behalf, and from the bottom of my heart, I thank you.