The Point Man for Peace in N. Ireland

George Mitchell says the time for decisions has come as deadline for peace talks nears.

In the Northern Ireland peace talks, even Job might tire. George Mitchell, as chair of those talks in Belfast, has been positively biblical in his patience. But during the next 24 hours, that will change.

For two years the former Senate majority leader has been through endless meetings - with little to show. He's been even- handed, objective, and cool. He's endured tantrums, walkouts, and rankly uncivil behavior. He puddle-hops back to his new wife and child in America each weekend - and shows up again Monday morning, working 12-hour days. If he dreams of the Supreme Court or being commissioner of baseball - jobs he turned down - former Senator Mitchell never says so, even to friends.

Indeed, in a process where one misinterpreted word or phrase can stall negotiations for days, Mitchell speaks carefully and sparingly. And his statecraft and sacrifice is not lost on the Irish. He has built enormous credibility and trust among the bristling pro-British and pro-Irish parties.

And that is why, in the coming hours, Mitchell will cash in on years of quietly cultivated good will. He has said that he wants an Irish peace agreement today, but many sources familiar with the talks say that the wee hours of tonight may well run into Friday. And to get a deal, he is dropping his poker-faced demeanor, boring in, and resorting to pressure.

"What he's been through ... makes him George the Lion-hearted," says a White House source. "But Mitchell is going to trade on all that credibility by the end of Good Friday. He's in the end game, and he is telling the Irish, 'Go back to conflict, or have peace, but I won't do this forever.' Given his own role, those are high stakes."

Recent negotiations

For most of the past week, Mitchell has imposed a new marathon regime on the eight factions and two governments that make up the historic talks. Mitchell has forced the main factions, who are still not talking although they are only 20 steps away from each other at Stormont Castle, to negotiate nonstop until an agreement is reached.

In some ways, the former senator from Maine, who many regard as the saving grace of the talks, is in an excellent position personally. If the agreement fails, no one will blame Mitchell's tireless effort. If it succeeds, he will be properly credited with keeping a historic agreement on track.

Whether that will happen is still unclear. This week Mitchell presented a 65-page document designed to bring a lasting settlement to the troubled region. But Tuesday, David Trimble, head of the pro-British Ulster Unionist Party, protested the plan. Party officials said it would tie the province too closely to Ireland. The Protestant Unionists are still in a 57 percent majority, and they have resisted serious relations with Ireland - a move they say would diminish British influence and increase the impulse toward a united Ireland.

Mitchell likes to say his experience dealing with 99 other large egos in the Senate was good preparation for the Irish talks, but adds: "I didn't know what hardball politics were until I got involved in this."

He was the choice of then-British Prime Minister John Major to chair the talks, which are sponsored by the British and Irish governments and have no formal tie to the US government.

Mitchell, whose father was an Irish janitor and whose mother was a Lebanese night-shift worker in the local textile mill, grew up on the wrong side of town in Waterville, Maine. Raised as a Catholic altar boy with brothers whose athletic ability far outshone his own, Mitchell remembers his father telling him to use his head, not his physical prowess, to advance in life.

After working his way through college and law school, he eventually went to work for Sen. Edmund Muskie in the 1960s. After two disastrous attempts at politics - one a run for governor of Maine - Mitchell was appointed in 1980 to the Senate to fill the term of Senator Muskie, who became secretary of state.

In less than a decade, he was voted Senate majority leader (a record), and he gained a measure of fame when he challenged Lt. Col. Oliver North in the Iran-contra hearings, saying: "Please remember that it is possible for an American to disagree with you on aid to the contras and still love God and still love this country just as much as you do."

A small social wake

Despite his status, Mitchell is a private person who cuts a small social wake. He seldom goes out and even close friends like Bob Dole can't remember being on the town with him. He prefers reading history books, staying home with his wife, Heather, and visiting family in Maine, where, as one visitor put it, "They talk for hours and eat dinner at midnight."

Mitchell's style extends to his role as a negotiator. In Britain, in fact, he didn't even register on a recent recognition poll.

By his own admission, Mitchell was not prepared for the antipathy in Northern Ireland. He discovered that Catholics and Protestants are routinely willing to cast aside progress to revive bloody history and family trials.

Healing in Northern Ireland will take a generation, once a deal is reached, Mitchell says. He has done some negotiating on the reconstruction of Bosnia for the International Crisis Group, a Washington mediation firm. He once met with a young Croat mayor of a burned out town, and likened the experience to Belfast. Would the Serbs and Croats ever be able to live side-by-side again, he asked the mayor. The young man thought about the question quietly for awhile, then said, "We will repair our buildings long before we repair our souls."

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