BELFAST — He fought for peace in Northern Ireland — and now George Mitchell is fighting for his life.
The former U.S. Senate majority leader from Maine, who became a diplomatic superhero in Northern Ireland after leading years of painstaking talks to produce the Good Friday Agreement, may be visiting his adopted homeland for the final time.
He hopes not. But, as Mitchell reflected in an interview with POLITICO, he simply cannot know.
Welcomed by well-wishers young and old this week as he returned to Belfast and to Queen’s University, where he served as chancellor for a decade following his peacemaking triumph in 1998, Mitchell opened a conference marking the accord’s 25th anniversary.
For nearly 45 minutes, Mitchell argued passionately for the power of compromise, his message leavened with well-timed jokes poking fun at the entrenched attitudes — and tough-to-decipher vowels — that tested him in Northern Ireland.
You’d never have known that Mitchell, 89, was making his first public speech in three years — nor that he had only recently ended years of chemotherapy in a battle with leukemia that came close to killing him.
“This is a gift by the grace of God to be able to come back here. I’ve had a rough couple of years,” he said.
“I retired from my law firm at the end of 2019, planning with my wife a life of travel and doing a lot of things that we hadn’t done. Then COVID hit and I was almost immediately diagnosed with acute leukemia. So I’ve been pretty sick. I haven’t been able to do very much.
“Initially I underwent intensive chemotherapy, which was very severe. I didn’t read a newspaper, I didn’t watch a minute of television. I was bedridden and very, very sick for about three months. Then I was on chemo for about two-and-a-half years,” he said. “The doctors said to me: ‘There’s a limit to how much chemotherapy you can take. We have to take you off.’ The disease may return. It may be six months, it may be two years — or who knows.”
‘Nothing in politics is impossible’
Mitchell now describes himself as pain-free and in remission.
He spoke in a Queen’s office overlooking the university’s entrance, where a bronze bust honoring him has just been unveiled by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and the former British and Irish prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern. In April 1998, the two premiers joined Mitchell for the intensive final days of the talks in Belfast, while Clinton cajoled Northern Ireland’s polarized politicians by phone from the White House.
Several other figures who helped deliver that breakthrough are no longer alive, including Northern Ireland’s joint Nobel Peace Prize laureates from 1998, John Hume and David Trimble, both of whom have died since the last Good Friday commemorations five years ago.
George Mitchell (C) attends a gala marking the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement | Pool photo by Charles McQuillan/AFP via Getty Images
In his speech, Mitchell paid equal tribute to Hume, the moderate Irish nationalist leader who opposed Irish Republican Army violence and laid the intellectual architecture for the Good Friday deal; and Trimble, the prickly legal scholar who risked splitting his Ulster Unionist Party by accepting a deal that allowed IRA prisoners to walk free and ex-IRA chiefs to join a new cross-community government without clear-cut guarantees the outlawed group would disarm.
“Without John Hume, there would not have been a peace process. Without David Trimble, there would not have been a peace agreement,” Mitchell said to thunderous applause from the crowd, among them most of today’s crop of British unionist, Irish nationalist and middle-ground leaders.
Left unsaid was that others wanted to see Mitchell himself share that same Nobel prize, given his central role in sustaining hope in the talks after what U.S. President Joe Biden last week described as “700 days of failure.”
Indeed, it has been a common refrain this week among those now seeking to revive Northern Ireland’s shuttered regional government — the centerpiece of a much broader Good Friday package that included police reform, prisoner releases and paramilitary disarmament — that they wish Mitchell was still in the market for one more Belfast mission.
Mitchell offered only raised eyebrows and a wry smile when asked if he’d like to lead one more round of talks at Stormont, the government complex overlooking Belfast.
But he expressed unreserved optimism that the Democratic Unionists — the party that physically tried to block him from taking his chair when the talks began in June 1996, and spent years condemning the peace process as a sellout to IRA terror — will find a way to return to a cross-community government with the Irish republicans of Sinn Féin.
The DUP has refused to revive the coalition government since May 2022 elections, citing its opposition to post-Brexit trade rules that treat Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the U.K.
Mitchell thinks Northern Ireland’s political fundamentals have evolved since he wrote, in his 1999 book “Making Peace,” that the Good Friday Agreement became possible only because the DUP had abandoned the talks the year before.
“Times and circumstances change,” he said. “Nothing in politics is impossible.
“Political parties change and evolve. Does the Republican Party in the United States today reflect the views of the Republican Party of 20 or even 10 years ago? Does the Democratic Party? The challenge of leadership is to recognize that and to deal with change, all in the broader public interest.”
He also rejected any notion that blame for the current Stormont impasse lies entirely with the DUP. “There isn’t any one villain,” he said. “Everybody’s trying to do what they think is best. The question is: What is best?”
Mitchell stressed that “100 percenters” — people who see “any compromise as weakness” — exist in pretty much every political party on earth, including his own Democrats. And he said no American politician should criticize the depth of political division in Northern Ireland given that, today, the divide in U.S. politics has grown arguably even more noxious.
Former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and George Mitchell shake hands during a photocall at the BBC studios, in Belfast in 2008 | Peter Muhly/AFP via Getty Images
Leaders in any democracy, he said, must be ready to absorb criticism from within their own ranks and keep striving for common ground.
“You can’t let the first ‘no’ be the final answer,” he said. “Or the second ‘no,’ or the seventh ‘no.’ You just have to treat everyone with respect and keep at it.”
A final goodbye
Mitchell came face to face with his own mortality during Monday’s unveiling of his bronze bust, drawing big laughs from the crowd as he observed: “When you’re looking at a statue of yourself, you know the end is near.”
But the reality of living with leukemia, which makes him more vulnerable to infections and other threats, draws his mind back to one of his great regrets from the Stormont talks.
“We were at a critical early moment in the talks in the summer of 1996. I was trying to get them going, to adopt a set of rules. It was very complicated, unnecessarily complicated,” he recalled.
With a vote on the rules due that coming Monday, he received an unexpected phone call from Maine. His brother Robbie, who had been fighting leukemia for five years, was close to death. If Mitchell hopped on to the next flight, he might make it back to his hometown of Waterville by Friday night — but he’d risk having the talks fall at their first hurdle.
Mitchell called his brother’s doctor, oncologist Richard Stone at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, to be told that although Robbie’s health was deteriorating and it was impossible to be certain, he might well survive for several weeks longer. Wanting to get the first step of the peace talks banked before negotiations broke for the summer, Mitchell chose to stay in the U.K. over the weekend.
That Saturday night, another call from Waterville confirmed that his older brother had just died.
“I came back to Belfast on Monday and we got those rules adopted. I made it home in time to speak at Robbie’s funeral. But I didn’t see him before he passed away. That’s one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made,” Mitchell said.
A quarter-century later, the same Dr. Stone is now treating the younger Mitchell brother for the same disease. Mitchell has been told that if the cancer returns, his advanced age means chemotherapy must be kept to a bare minimum.
“Medical science has advanced very rapidly in the curing of leukemia. But as the doctors explained to me, chemotherapy is poison and if you take enough of that, that will kill you,” he said. “The doctor also explained to me that, on the other hand, I might go a few years and die of something else.”
Bill Clinton shakes hands with George Mitchell in the Oval Office at the White House after naming the retiring senator to be a special advisor for economic initiatives in Ireland | Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images
Mitchell estimates he’s already flown back and forth to Belfast at least 100 times since 1995. He and his wife, Heather, have approached this trip as if it could be his last — that this week might represent his final goodbye to a vexatious land he’s come to love.
“I honestly don’t know if this is the last time I’ll ever be in Northern Ireland. But my wife and I accept the possibility that it is,” he said. “I told Heather on the way over, we’ve really got to enjoy this and take in the sights and sounds of this beautiful place and the people. My fervent hope is that I’ll be able to come back again.”