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The family man behind the negotiator

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 22, 1999


His patience and perseverance are touted as making possible the April 1998 Northern Ireland peace accord. But it's what lies behind these qualities that makes George Mitchell's remarkable feat most edifying.

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Senator Mitchell achieved "the impossible" because he has a way of exemplifying how politics, in its best sense, is meant to be played, and for what ends.

In an era when clever sound-bite jabs and pointing the finger at the foot-dragging culprit hold sway in political life, Mitchell's approach resonates with its profound faith in the fundamentals of democratic interaction. How you deal with people is as crucial to the result as what you deal about - however intractable or perilous the situation, his story declares.

This doesn't jump right out at you as he speaks in his quiet, modest way about the two years of "tremendously acrimonious, painful, and unproductive discussions" he sat through as bombings and other shocking acts of violence sought to derail the talks he was chairing.

Nor does it stand out in bold relief in his new book, "Making Peace" (Knopf), an account of the ins and outs of the negotiations and the personal challenges that helped make them the "most difficult and most gratifying" experience of his public life. But it comes into focus as he shares the motivations that led him to take on the job and the principles that guided him in day-to-day interactions with parties who found it hard even to stay in the same room with one another.

Family is a primary influence in his life, and he credits his father with getting him into the peace talks and his newborn son with keeping him there. The orphaned son of an Irish immigrant (raised by a Lebanese-American family), his father was a janitor, "not an educated man, but a wise one. He taught us that every human being has an obligation to help others in need, and the more successful you are, the greater the obligation." Many think it was because of his Irish heritage that he got involved, but that was gratuitous, accidental, Mitchell says. "That I was in a position to help was what mattered."

When the risks are greater

Peace talks aren't the traditional landscape of politics, of course, but they demand that politicians compromise when the risks are even greater than usual.

"Politicians are maligned the world over," Mitchell says. "But these men and women exist in a circumstance unlike anything we are familiar with. They face the same tension every elected official faces in trying to balance the demands of one's constituency with the needs of the larger society. But they also confronted a long history of political violence where not only their careers but their lives and the safety of their families were at stake."

This respect for the burden and for every individual who was taking it on, however recalcitrant or provocative, set the tone that kept the talks going, shored them up at moments of desperation, and encouraged an atmosphere in which bitter enemies could eventually make the leap to direct communication and even to some acknowledgment of the sufferings and needs of the other side.

One Unionist leader who had opposed Mitchell's appointment with the statement that it was like "appointing an American Serb to preside over talks on the future of Croatia," two months later told the press he was an excellent chairman. After waiting in the wings at the first session as parties argued over him, Mitchell's first act was to have them all commit to a set of democratic principles (the "Mitchell principles"), which grounded the work of the next 22 months and the agreement itself.

He let everyone have their say, no matter how long it took. He was painstakingly fair in consulting on decisions and dealing with every kind of maneuver. He watched as parties exited because of broken cease-fires and found ways to bring them back.

He even reached out to those who tried to undermine the talks: After gunmen made an attempt on the life of one party leader as he was visiting his son in the hospital, Mitchell phoned him. "He belongs to a party that strongly opposed me, but this was beyond politics, beyond reason, beyond humanity," he says.

The achievement of the April 1998 agreement was obviously far from his alone, and Mitchell sees these key factors:

*"The wide and deep yearning for peace and weariness with sectarian conflict among the people of Northern Ireland."