The Rev Ian Paisley must be given credit for finally delivering power sharing in the North, Senator George Mitchell said today.
As the First Minister prepared to step down from the Northern Ireland Executive early next month, the former Maine Senator paid tribute to the 82-year-old North Antrim MP who walked out 11 years ago from the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement.
“I have to say it has been a pleasant surprise seeing what has happened,” Senator Mitchell, who chaired the Stormont talks, said.
“Dr Paisley deserves credit for doing the right thing at the right time.”
Senator Mitchell was commenting ahead of a conference at Queen’s University in Belfast later this month about how peace in the North was achieved.
Among the speakers lined up for the two day event are former First Minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lord (David) Trimble, former Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon, and South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission chairman and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The Mitchell Conference will also involve Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson from Mr Paisley’s Democratic Unionists, who was a member of the Ulster Unionists at the time of the Agreement, and will feature academic contributions.
It will follow a symposium organised by the US Ireland Alliance which took place in Belfast in March which featured Senator Mitchell, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, former SDLP leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate John Hume, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey and other key architects of the Agreement.
“I think it’s appropriate, given Queen’s University’s reputation for academic excellence and its important role in Northern Ireland society, that there is strong academic input,” he said.
“This will be an important conference from our standpoint – a good way to mark the Good Friday Agreement and consider its principles and values.
“Both this conference and the US Ireland Alliance event are useful in their own way but this will be a much broader effort involving people from the islands of Ireland and the UK and other parts of the world.
“We are keen that it reflects not just what has happened in Northern Ireland but the implications internationally.”
In 2001 Senator Mitchell, who is a Chancellor of the university, produced a report on the Middle East which urged the Israelis and Palestinians to reaffirm their commitment to previous agreements and call an immediate, unconditional ceasefire.
And while he acknowledged today the template which achieved peace in the North cannot simply be transplanted into the Middle East or other conflicts, Senator Mitchell said there was a clear desire around the world to learn from the province.
This was underlined recently by the participation of Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Jeffrey Donaldson in talks with rival sides in Iraq and the involvement of Northern Ireland politicians in peace processes in the Basque country, Sri Lanka and the Middle East.
“I think there were a number of factors in Northern Ireland which led to peace,” the former Stormont talks chairman observed.
“Firstly the public had gotten sick of the conflict. There was a general weariness with war and all the difficulties conflict imposed on everyone.
“The second thing was the governments of Britain and Ireland persevered through several failed efforts and kept the process going until there was agreement.
“Third, I know the political leaders of every country involved – the US, the UK, Ireland and Northern Ireland – are subject to criticism and public ridicule but Northern Ireland was very fortunate to have very courageous leaders who were able and willing to do the right thing at the right time.
“Another significant factor was the important role women played in the political process generally and the peace process specifically.
“And finally I think the one indispensable factor to peace building was economic growth and job creation. You have to give people opportunity and hope.
“That is why the US investment conference that has taken place in Belfast over the past week is so important.
“I speak regularly to American audiences and I always tell them about the energy and productivity of the people of Northern Ireland, the high rate of literacy and the work ethic in order to dispel the images they had seen on TV of past violence which are representative of Northern Ireland.”
Senator Mitchell had sympathy with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s call at the investment conference for the so-called peace walls dividing loyalist and nationalist neighbourhoods in Belfast to be dismantled.
“This should be and will be a decision by the people of Northern Ireland themselves,” he said.
“Yes, of course, those of us who have been involved and have such affection and hope for Northern Ireland would welcome that.”