One of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, former US Senator George Mitchell, urged Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Prime Minister Theresa May to remember just what is at stake in Northern Ireland following Brexit.
Senator Mitchell, US President Bill Clinton’s special envoy to Ireland who chaired the negotiations for the 1998 agreement, made a series of media appearances and gave a number of interviews to coincide with the anniversary.
He said it was hugely important to resolve the problem of the post-Brexit border because it had been an “important factor” in normalising relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
“What I do is urge them is to recognise what’s at stake here. It’s the futures of their economies, it’s the possibility of resumption of conflict or of a reversion back to a time when nobody wants to go back to except for a very tiny fringe element on both sides.
“I think that means that they have to come up with reasonable and acceptable compromises,” he said on BBC Television’s Andrew Marr programme. He flatly rejected the presenter’s suggestion the Belfast Agreement was now an obstacle to political progress in Northern Ireland.
“I don’t agree with that analysis. I think the people espousing that line are primarily concerned with the Brexit debate in the UK and are using the Northern Ireland issue as a part of that debate,” he said.
Elsewhere the former US senator said the three and a half years of negotiations leading to the Agreement were among the most difficult years of his life. He said flying home for the birth of his son in 1997 he felt despair and questioned whether it made sense to pursue “what was obviously a hopeless task”.
In the middle of the first night of his son Andrew’s life, he says, he thought how different his life would be if he had been born a citizen of Northern Ireland.
“I wondered how many babies had been born in Northern Ireland on his birthday. What would their lives be like? I picked up the telephone and called my staff in Belfast. After getting a routine briefing, I asked them to find out how many newborns had been delivered in NI that day. It didn’t take long to get the answer: 61.”
“Surely the parents of those 61 babies had the same hopes and dreams. Shouldn’t those 61 children have the same chance in life that we wanted for our son? Could they get it if NI reverted to sectarian strife?” he asked.
“All of the doubts I had about my role in Northern Ireland vanished. No matter what, I would see it through, all the way to an agreement. I felt an overpowering urge to touch my sleeping son. I picked him up and held him close for a long time.”
Mr Mitchell, who spent Sunday visiting the Border counties, told reporters he had had often dreamed during the talks of returning to Northern Ireland years later with his son to observe Assembly members debate ordinary issues of life. That came to pass fourteen years later during which his son, after half an hour, whispered: “Dad, this is really boring. Can we go now?”
Mr Mitchell said: “We all now must ask: can WE go now? Can we leave the Troubles behind? Can we summon the vision and the patience needed to build a peaceful and prosperous future?”
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