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The family man behind the negotiator

(Page 2 of 2)

*"The political courage of Northern Ireland politicians."

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*"The creation of the European Union, which made it easier for Britain and Ireland to work together, and the tremendous economic growth and changes in Irish society."

*"The commitment of the British and Irish governments" over many years and down to the final moments; and the active backing of President Clinton at key stages.

In his book, Mitchell details how these commitments came into play, and credits the many sung and unsung heroes.

Several times he considered leaving, especially when the consequences for his personal life became difficult to bear. His brother died and his wife had a miscarriage while he was in Belfast - and little progress was being made.

"It took 14 months to get agreement on the statement of the issues - not the solution, but the statement!" Mitchell says with a glance of exasperation. "When you read it you must say, 'This could have been agreed to in an afternoon.' I was constantly plagued with doubts about where my true obligations were."

But his wife, Heather, who supported his work each step of the way, became pregnant again, and the birth of their first child, Andrew, in October 1997, came at another "low point in the process."

"When my son was born," he says, "late one night, I started thinking about what his life would be like if he'd been born in Northern Ireland." He called his staff in Belfast to ask how many children had been born on that day in Northern Ireland - it turned out to be 61. "I began to think how different the prospects would be for them had they been born in the US, even though their parents' aspirations would be the same as ours. That strengthened my resolve. I put out of my mind once and for all any idea of leaving the talks and committed to bring it to a conclusion."

In early 1998, after a Christmas holiday stained by a "rampage of sectarian murder," he concluded there had to be a firm deadline. "I devised a specific plan and exact time and date and made up a day-to-day schedule for what would be done," he says. "I met with each party and tried to persuade them. To my surprise, they agreed. "That's when I first felt there was a realistic chance of success - that they were willing to submit themselves to a deadline suggested they were serious," he adds. The pages in his book devoted to those final two weeks of negotiating are riveting.

"Making Peace" is not a history of the talks but a story of his personal experience. Sometimes dry, it may be of greatest interest to "political junkies." But part of its value lies in that very depiction of the slogging that's required to make democratic ideals become realities.

Finding the right words

Many hiatuses occurred in the talks - during summers, when traditional parading often inflamed attitudes, and over holidays, when violence sometimes reached new levels of inhumanity. Mitchell always had to find words both for the participants and the press that would be honest and yet set the stage for when talks resumed. At his most despairing moments, he had to inspire others to continue the fight. Mitchell always managed to do that, and to present a higher sense of what politics is about and what it can accomplish.

He's still doing so. After 3-1/2 years of the peace process, he declined to chair the commission to implement the agreement. But he follows it closely. Full implementation will take some time, he says, as many issues remain unresolved - studies are still under way, for instance, on policing and the criminal justice system.

"What we are learning in the Balkans, in Northern Ireland, in the Middle East," he says, is that as "difficult as it is to reach an agreement, it can be more difficult to implement it." On the current crisis over decommissioning of weapons, he adds, "Opponents of the agreement have failed to bring it down. The incredible circumstance now is that it is under threat from those who support it. That would be a huge tragedy, since they have already taken the risks of reaching the agreement.

"They have the momentum of the agreement and the overwhelming support of the people behind them," he adds. "History might forgive the failure to reach an agreement, but it will never forgive the failure to implement it. I point that out as often as I can."