Senator George Mitchell

media85081enThis year’s Queen’s University Graduation Dinner marked the retirement of Senator George Mitchell as Chancellor of the University. It was a great honour to be there, along with so many of the people who have played such a key role in Northern Ireland in recent years. Irish President Mary McAleese spoke of the important role that Queen’s has played in the development of life in Northern Ireland and recalled that she and her husband Martin arrived at Queen’s exactly 40 years ago and that it had such a great impact on her life.

In recalling his involvement in the peace process, Senator Mitchell recalled how that in 1997 when the talks were not going well that he was tempted to give up. He flew back to the US for the birth of his son, Andrew, and with the new baby in his arms, thought again about returning to Northern Ireland. On asking his Belfast staff, he discovered that 61 babies had been born in Northern Ireland on the same day as Andrew. As he reflected on their future, he determined that he would return to continue to work with the people here in seeking a settlement. That effort proved to be successful.

But Senator Mitchell, in typically humble mode, acknowledged that if there has been any success in the peace process then it is due to the people of Northern Ireland and their representatives, not to him. And so he invited John Hume, Reg Empey, Monica McWilliams, Bertie Ahern and John Alderdice to stand and to receive the applause of the gathering. It was a moving moment.

Now President Obama has asked him to be the US peace envoy to the Middle East. Someone at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem asked Senator Mitchell how long the conflict had been going on in Ireland. “About 800 years”, he replied. “800 years?” said his enquirer. “Such a short time! No wonder you sorted it out so quickly!” It seems that Northern Ireland has just been the appetiser for George before he addresses the main course of conflict resolution in the Middle East.