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Sen. George Mitchell brokered an Irish peace deal that has lasted for 25 years

… ended more than three decades of “the Troubles”

Now 89-years-of-age and battling leukemia, former Sen. George Mitchell knew that he had to return to Ireland on Monday.

April 10th marked the 25th year of a peace agreement that ended a long period of turbulence between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the loyalists on the British side. It was a long, hard quest to reach that peace accord in 1998, but it was the pinnacle of a distinguished life.

Often called the “Good Friday Agreement,” many felt that it would never last.

Indeed, it has.

Defying the odds

Sen. Mitchell’s appearance in Northern Ireland in the 1990s was one that everyone desired since the negotiations were very tricky, and neither side trusted the other. When President Bill Clinton asked him to take on the job, Mitchell immediately entered the fray,

The former US senator, who chaired the negotiations which led to the 1998 peace accord, will join other world leaders at a series of events taking place at Queen’s University between Monday-Wednesday April 17-19.

Despite receiving ongoing treatment for leukaemia, and even if advised by doctors not to travel, the 89-year-old is determined to make the trip to celebrate the political settlement in which he played a key role.

President Bill Clinton, former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former taoiseach Bertie Ahern have already been confirmed for the Agreement 25 series of events.

Deaglán de Bréadún and John Manley, “George Mitchell to defy health problems by travelling to Belfast to mark 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement,” Irish News, April 9, 2023

The peace agreement was thought by many to be, at best, a long shot. The history was one of “troubles.”

History of The Troubles

I never knew much about the history of animus between the nefarious British and the beloved Irish, despite my having three grandparents from Ireland. One of the regrets of my life is that I never really knew them at an age when I could ask them questions about the old country.

Here is some of that lesson,

When Ireland, long dominated by its bigger neighbor Britain, became a self-governing Roman Catholic-majority country a century ago, a six-county region in the north with a Protestant majority remained part of the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland was split between two main communities: nationalists — most of them Catholic — who desired union with the rest of Ireland, and largely Protestant unionists, who wanted to stay British.

The Catholic minority experienced discrimination in jobs, housing and other areas in the Protestant-dominated state. In the 1960s, a Catholic civil rights movement demanded change, but faced a harsh response from the government and police.

Jill Lawless, “As it turns 25, N. Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement

explained, Associated Press, April 4, 2023

The conflict

When I was a young teacher in the mid-1970s and attending graduate school at Penn State University, I read a book entitled “Trinity” by Leon Uris. That novel, which was based to a large extent on factual situations between people in the Republic of Ireland and the British, taught me a great deal about the roots of the conflict.

While the Irish finally broke away in the early 1920s, the animus never really left in Northern Ireland,

The situation deteriorated into a conflict involving Irish republican militants, loyalist paramilitaries and U.K. troops.

Bombings and shootings killed some 3,600 people, mostly in Northern Ireland, though republicans also set off bombs in mainland Britain.

Jill Lawless, Associated Press, April 4, 2023

The Troubles could never end

The problem boiled over into America, and many of the weapons in the conflict came from IRA supporters in the U.S. That led to people finally coming together to try and find a peaceful conflict,

By the early 1990s, the armed conflict had reached “a hurting stalemate,” said Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queens University Belfast. “There was a recognition on the part of the British government and army, and on the Irish republican side as well, that there was never going to be an outright victory.”

The Irish Republican Army called a cease-fire in 1994, allowing its allied party, Sinn Fein, to join other nationalist and unionist parties in peace talks co-sponsored by the British and Irish governments. The United States played a key role — former Sen. George Mitchell chaired the talks, spending 22 months in Belfast overseeing the delicate multi-party negotiations.

Jill Lawless, Associated Press, April 4, 2023

My knowledge evolved

At the time, I was taking a wonderful Shakespeare course taught by Professor John Moore. He talked about the Celtic people during his lectures, and I mentioned to him once that I had just read “Trinity.” He bought the book and read it, and I had some great discussions with him.

The following year I had a course that included a British poet, T.S. Eliot, whom I did not like, and an Irish bard, WWilliam Butler Yeats, and that further explained the problems that existed in Ireland and about “Easter 1916.” That led to the eventual freedom of Ireland from British rule about six years later.

The British and Irish came together to approve the Good Friday Agreement, which almost fell apart at the last minute. Mitchell stayed the course, set a deadline, and both sides met it.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair led that effort, and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was the Republic’s leader.

American President Joe Biden will arrive in Ireland this week for the festivities. He has been lauded as the “Second Irish-American president.” President John F. Kennedy was the first.

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