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Figuring Out George Mitchell’s Real Contribution to the Good Friday Agreement

On Tuesday 10th April 2018, I was in Belfast to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) with all the great and the good who took part in those negotiations – former President Bill Clinton who made phone calls from the White House during the last twelve hours of the negotiations, former Senator George Mitchell (82) who chaired the Stormont talks, prime ministers Tony Blair (UK) and Bertie Ahern (Ireland) who drove the compromises over the last four days along with the many government officials and the negotiation teams of ten political parties who all made it possible. One of the architects of GFA, John Hume, was unable to attend because of his dementia while others were missing because of death since then – Mo Mowlam, Martin McGuinness and Davy Ervine.

George Mitchell reflected on the “700 days of failure and one day of success” that characterised the two years of talks and negotiations between September 1996 and April 1998. Bill Clinton called the GFA the “work of genius that’s applicable if you care at all about preserving democracy.” It is a “jewel” in a world today “where there are people who are aggressively trying to destroy the very idea of popular democracy, it embodied everything that I believe works best.” In a slightly flatter tone, Tony Blair said the GFA was “a huge collaborative effort…where the differences were not just political but cultural”.

If you want to get an overview of present day perspectives on the momentous agreement, take a look on Vimeo of the well produced 17 minute documentary “Building Peace: 20 Years on from the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement” specially produced for the commemorative event. Queens University commissioned a local online group of journalists, the, to pull together interviews with insiders belonging to six political parties.

Facilitation or muscle mediation

Back in 2004, a negotiation analysis was made by a Harvard interest-based trio (Curran, Sabenius & Watkins) comparing the very different negotiation styles in multi-party conflicts of George Mitchell in Northern Ireland and the late Richard Holbrooke, who obtained the Dayton Accords (1995) between the Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims in the Balkans. Mitchell is seen at one end of the external third-party spectrum firmly focused on designing a participative process, getting to know the key players and building win-win relationships. Holbrooke is at the other end of the spectrum where he plays “as fast as possible” a directing and engineering role regarding the substantive issues of the deal. Heavily influenced by President Carter’s mediation at Camp David that lasted for 13 days, Holbrooke held a “big bang/hot house” proximity talks conference at Dayton airbase away from local scrutiny and under a time pressure. He shuttled between the parties using the single text negotiation technique that went on for 21 days. However, Holbrooke – or even Kissinger in the 1970’s – cannot be called neutral because they were not afraid to use the muscle power and resource rewards of the USA state to leverage the outcomes in the interests of the United States. Out of those intensive negotiations, Holbrooke succeeded in getting a conflict management settlement that continues to this day in the form of a confederal and partitioned Bosnian state.

Regarding the Northern Ireland negotiations, the unionist parties opposed secret talks in a foreign place away from Belfast because they wanted to avoid the possibility of being politically ambushed away from their home base. So they stayed local in Castle Buildings at Stormont even though the five storey civil service office block was not really suited for multi-party talks – something everyone agreed on!

Geoffrey Corry with former Senator George Mitchell at Queens University, Belfast

Mitchell’s facilitative style proved decisive

It was hugely important that George Mitchell came as an independent outsider to chair the talks and the fact that he was President Clinton’s man helped to keep the pressure on all the parties. He had the benefit of getting to know some of the players by the time the talks process opened in September 1996. He had played a significant role with his two co-chairs – General John de Chastelain of Canada and Harri Holkerri of Finland – in the previous year in finding a basis for the talks to happen. In setting out the six Mitchell Principles, it overcame the barrier of decommissioning of paramilitary weapons as a precondition to entering the talks process.

Mitchell had the patience at the beginning and throughout the 700 days to play a long slow game. His strength was his ability to connect warmly with Northern Ireland people as an outsider and to persist in building confidence and relationships of trust particularly with the unionist/loyalist parties sufficient to keep them engaged in the process. They were impressed by his respect for them and his great problem solving and logical mind. He was able to get to the kernel of issues quickly. Bertie Ahern said that Mitchell was tough but it helped that he was “a very friendly sort of guy”.

What emerges is the deep humility of George Mitchell as a man: “I made many mistakes.” He listened carefully for a very long time and demonstrated his respect for every point of view from each of the ten parties in the plenary sessions that dominated the talks. Mitchell remembers saying to the delegates in the first year: “There is nothing you can say that I won’t listen to!” Lord Alderdice (2010) of the Alliance Party tells us that Mitchell excluded no one and developed the process in such a way that the parties brought their proposals to him in the presence of each other. He did not bring his own solutions to the talks. Consequently, he was able to hold everyone together in the room and won people over through his procedural fairness and persuasion.

When do you impose a talks deadline?

There were times he felt like going home as it was turning out to be a hopeless effort. As the talk in the plenary sessions went on and on with unlimited debate, even Mitchell wondered when it was going to stop. He began to doubt himself. One story is that he was told by the unionist delegates early on in the talks 1996-7: “We are coming back but we don’t recognise you as chairman.” He asked what they would call him: “We will call you Senator!”

A turning point was on the birth of his son Andrew with Heather. Mitchell recalls flying back to New York in October 1997 to be present for the birth. The peace talks had “ground on relentlessly with invective, insult and repetition almost beyond human endurance but without progress”. He had been asked by the media on his departure if he intended to quit the peace talks and said no publicly, but privately he had severe doubts. “During a gloomy sleepless flight I was filled with doubt and despair. It was obviously a hopeless task.” He could just have not bothered coming back but true to an inner calling he discovered there were another 61 new born babies that day. Should they not have the same chances as his son? He came back and drew on all of his political skill and physical stamina to bring the process to a swifter conclusion.

The luxury of time is rarely afforded to negotiation. All talks have timelines. If there is no sense of urgency, parties will not be persuaded to tease out the issues, elicit concessions and make those compromise decisions. The timing of the intervention becomes important. When the parties had exhausted the process of talking in early 1998, Mitchell stayed in his facilitative mode and brought forward proposals for a two week process to get to the final negotiations. He did not conjure up a set of substantive solutions as that was the domain of the parties. He consulted with the two governments and all the parties to structure the final two weeks after they returned from the St Patrick’s Day events in Washington. He went for a guillotine cut-off point of Easter 1998 for the negotiations.

Who were the architects of the Agreement?

Unlike Holbrooke, Mitchell had a limited role in working out the substantive content of the agreement. Rather his role was conductor of the orchestra. He valued everyone’s contribution and gave extra support to the women’s coalition who were there to make peace and not push a party position.

GFA would not have happened without the negotiations being driven by the two Prime Ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern. They developed a very close political relationship from 1996 onwards and they handled nearly all the political discussions in Dublin and London in the period from September 1997 to April 1998. It is estimated that Ahern spent a good 50% of his week connecting with the nationalist and republican parties in Dublin at weekends and Blair gave a good third of his time in London connecting with the unionist parties, an incredible commitment to building and sustaining the political process. They were supported by dedicated teams of officials/civil servants in both governments who got to know each other during the nineties through the strong relationships that developed.

It is estimated that 80% of the principles and concepts such as the core principle of consent came from the official negotiations that had taken place between the British and Irish governments working together over the previous fifteen years, turbulent as they were. In turn, many of those elements emerged out of sustained back channel private channels and dialogue between the nationalist and republican parties in the 1980’s. Indeed, some principles even go back as far as the Sunningdale agreement in 1973-4. Tim O’Connor, who led the Irish government’s negotiation team at the talks, describes all the different elements that went into the GFA as “the accumulation of probabilities” that got stitched together into a giant tapestry at Stormont Buildings. They worked hard to ensure no rabbits got pulled out of the hat. Both teams worked on the principle of “no surprises” to ensure that nothing came out of the left field that would undermine trust.

It is wrong to see a sort of ‘banging of heads together’ in the continuous 58 hours of intensive negotiations of the last four days leading up to 5.30pm on Good Friday. It is much more complex than that. There was no plenary session and it was sometimes hard to know what was happening in the building with meetings taking place on the different floors. The diagram below attempts to show the sequence of events constructed from the many memoirs of the leaders. George Mitchell kept in touch with Tony Blair who shared the same corridor up on the top floor with Bertie Ahern on the floor below. The party leaders did not get any sleep as they went back and forth from their own party meetings and the series of separate bi-lateral meetings dealing with Strands 1 and 2.

From a distance, President Bill Clinton in the White House took a personal interest to bring the final package over the line. He stayed intensely involved with the negotiations on Thursday night and Good Friday morning and phoned the Northern Ireland party leaders, speaking personally to Gerry Adams and David Trimble among others. This was a measure of how he had got to know them over the years and was bang up to date with the detail in the final sticking points.

The final four hours

The roller coaster process took a nose dive at mid-day on Good Friday afternoon as the negotiation teams in each party parcelled out the final text for closer scrutiny after all the deliberations and concessions of the previous three days. It seemed all the parties were prepared to back the agreement but there were rumours about big reservations among the Ulster Unionists. Was the party going to agree the final text or turn it down? The Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble brought together the UUP Talks Team at 1.30pm in the final hours, locked the door and called on everyone to give their opinion. It was decision time.

On BBC television two weeks ago, David Kerr – who was an advisor to Trimble at that time – revealed for the first time what went on behind those closed doors. He explained how the discussion went back and forth between senior UUP party members. Jeffrey Donaldson had big concerns about IRA decommissioning and prisoner release in two years’ time. John Taylor raised about 20 issues in the final text. But it was the contribution of security spokesman Ken Maginnis which proved decisive. He began with a big sigh: “Look boys, I have been at this for thirty years and I have seen it all. After every failed talks initiative, there is a renewed cycle of violence and murder. We are tough unionist people. We can take it but that is not the point. Every time the unionist people come back to the table, the deal is worse. So we came into the talks to secure the Union, to get the consent principle enshrined in law, to get Articles 2 & 3 revoked [in the Republic of Ireland constitution], to deal with North-South cooperation [with the Republic] in a manner that did not threaten unionism. We have achieved all that… but, look, I don’t like the issue of a review of policing. I don’t like prisoner releases and so on. We have to be cognisant of the fact that if we don’t take this deal, then there is a very good likelihood of the two governments doing a deal over our heads.”

At 3pm, two UUP members of the talks team left the room with Jeffrey Donaldson (who subsequently joined Ian Paisley’s DUP) not satisfied with the final text. But they did not tell Trimble the significance of this move, effectively a walk-out. Meanwhile, Trimble went up to see Tony Blair at the top of the building looking for a safeguard that the process of arms decommissioning would begin before Sinn Fein would enter government. Blair said it was not possible to renegotiate this but offered Trimble a side-letter to the Agreement with no legal status. Jonathon Powell and the exhausted No 10 Downing Street team drafted the letter. It arrived down to the unionists’ locked room on the ground floor at 4.30pm. Trimble phoned George Mitchell at 4.45 to say that the UUP was saying ‘yes’. It was a courageous and giant leap of faith by David Trimble and John Taylor. Had they said ‘No’, all the years of building blocks of peace from the bottom up and the peace diplomacy at the high level would have collapsed.

At 5pm, the plenary session was convened and by 5.30pm the text was adopted by all the parties with the exception of Sinn Fein who did not have plenipotentiary powers from their party. By the rule of sufficient consensus borrowed from the South African negotiations, that meant agreement. Tony Blair’s “hand of history” suddenly descended on all in the Stormont Castle buildings on 10th April 1998 to a huge sigh of relief, jubilation and hugs. The two prime ministers and Senator George Mitchell came together for a historic photograph with the packed room behind them. The party leaders then went out to meet the world’s media waiting outside in the snow.

That story of what happened behind those unionist locked doors had never been told before in public. Why now? Because it demonstrated that political courage is ultimately about having to compromise when the time comes. Leaders have to decide strategically between the choice of the lesser or the greater evil. Negotiation involves compromises and that ultimately involves a leader taking a risk in the hope that your people will follow you. Of course, they may not and it can involve personal and party sacrifice if the polls go another way. Political risk taking is also about party one-upmanship: the UUP took the decision to compromise in 1998 and lost heavily at the polls in 2003. The DUP won at that time but were not prepared to take a risk in 2018 against the background of Brexit. Hence the impasse that Northern Ireland finds itself in again.

There was another public revelation at a public lecture in Dublin to coincide with GFA twenty years later. The parents of George Mitchell’s father, whose original name was Joseph Kilroy, came from Ireland but when they became penniless, the young George and his brother were raised as orphans by a Lebanese family. He remembers that day: “On the morning I was about to leave home to go to college, he (his father) sat me down at the kitchen table, he had on his work clothes, my mother had just returned from her work on the night shift, and she was covered with lint. My father said to me, you’re a smart young boy and I know you’re going to do well. But I want you to take a good look at me and a good look at your mother and wherever you go and whatever you do, don’t you ever forget where you came from. I never have.”

Now, many years later, George Mitchell believes his father can look down and be proud of what he has done for Ireland.


Twenty years later, we now know much more about the ‘quiet hero’ facilitator role that Mitchell played in Belfast and what really happened in the final four days at the decision stage in the negotiations. In addition to his own detailed account in Chapter 15 of his book (1999), there are the memoirs of key players like Tony Blair (Chapter 6: 2010), Bertie Ahern (Chapter 11: 2009), David Trimble (Chapter 24: Godson 2005) and Jonathon Powell (Chapter 4: 2008). They are all men so it is refreshing to get Mo Mowlam’s account (2002) as the first female Secretary of State and Kate Fearon (1999) who was on the negotiation team of the Women’s Coalition with two seats at the table among all the men [see references below]. As you can imagine, we were hearing even more stories of key moments in the negotiations at the “Building Peace” public sessions in Queen’s University and in the many newspaper articles surrounding the event. The private notes of John Holmes, principal private secretary to Tony Blair, surfaced on the web [Eamon Mallie’s blog].

Lord John Alderdice, If Ireland can find Peace, What chance for Israel?, Paper to Gerald Ford School of Public Policy (30/09/2010). Can be found on You Tube.Bertie Ahern, The Autobiography, Hutchinson (2009)

Tony Blair, A Journey, Hutchinson (2010)

Daniel Curran, James Sebenius and Michael Watkins, ‘Two Paths to Peace: Contrasting George Mitchell in Northern Ireland with Richard Holbrooke in Bosnia-Herzegovina’, Negotiation Journal 20/4 (2004).

Kate Fearon, Women’s Work: The Story of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, Blackstaff Press (1999).

Dean Godson, Himself Alone: David Trimble and the Ordeal of Unionism, Harper Perennial (2004).

George Mitchell, Making Peace: The inside story of the making of the Good Friday Agreement, Heinemann (1999).

Mo Mowlam, Momentum: The Struggle for Peace, Politics and the People, Hodder & Stoughton (2002)

Graham Spencer (2016): Leading a Peace Process: an interview with Bertie Ahern, Irish Political Studies, Routledge online DOI: 10.1080/07907184.2016.1253558


Geoffrey Corry

Geoffrey Corry is a dialogue facilitator with the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation located in the hills above Dublin, Ireland. He teaches a module on the Irish Peace Process within the Masters programme at the Kennedy Institute for Conflict Intervention in Maynooth University. He is an experienced mediator in… MORE >

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