Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MAY 12, 1999
Head: Northern Ireland Peace Accord
Sect: News; International
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
George Mitchell achieved what many thought was impossible, negotiating a peace settlement in Northern Ireland. Mitchell became the chair of the Northern Ireland peace talks in 1996 after 15 years serving as a Democratic senator from Maine.
For his last six years in the Senate he was the majority leader. Mitchell has written a new memoir called "Making Peace," about leading the negotiations in Northern Ireland. We invited him to reflect on his experiences.
The peace agreement, which was reached one year ago, is being threatened now by the controversy over whether the paramilitary groups must disarm before things can move forward. For example, the Ulster Unionist party is refusing to let Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, take its seats in the new assembly until the IRA disarms -- which the IRA is not ready to do.
I asked Mitchell if he's worried that the peace process is falling apart.
GEORGE MITCHELL, FORMER UNITED STATES SENATOR (D-ME); AUTHOR, "MAKING PEACE": I'm deeply concerned about the impasse that's developed, but it was not unexpected. When I announced the agreement on Good Friday of 1998, I said that while an historic step would not by itself provide or guarantee peace and political stability in Northern Ireland. All of the participants in the negotiations recognized that there would be many difficult and controversial decisions ahead, including this one.
So, it's a matter of real concern, but I don't think that the process is going to fail because of it. I think the political leaders will find a way through it.
GROSS: As an outsider -- as an American -- chairing the Northern Ireland peace talks, was it ever difficult for you to understand how deeply felt some of the disputes were? Were you ever baffled by the feelings around certain differences, or baffled by the deep feelings about certain language being used in the description of a conflict?
MITCHELL: Yes, I was often baffled. Often not able to understand fully what was occurring, much more so in the early stages of the process than in the later. I learned a lot from this process, and one of the things I learned was the depth and complexity of the conflict.
How actions, which appeared to me and other Americans, and perhaps most outsiders, to be irrational; in fact had some basis from the standpoint of those who are engaged in such actions. And how very much the people there do not have a history or culture of political compromise, they rather have one in which differences were thrashed out in a violent way and not through democratic dialogue and compromise and give and take.
Yes, I did underestimate that, and for a long time it was difficult to comprehend.
GROSS: Did that ever work in your favor, or did it more often work against you?
MITCHELL: Well, the very length of the negotiations certainly worked in my favor, although I didn't like it at the time. It was extremely difficult and very demanding. I sat there for two years and listened to the same arguments over and over again, that's very hard to do. It's hard to listen to anybody for more than just a couple of minutes, and to do it for a couple of years is very difficult.
But although I didn't realize it at the time, in retrospect I can see that it helped me because in the two-year period I was forced to make dozens, indeed hundreds, of decisions. And as I did so, struggling to be fair and impartial, I could sense and feel the trust and confidence of the participants in me growing.
And so by the time we get to the end of the process, when I moved from being a purely impartial arbiter or presiding judge, if you will, to one of active mediation in the search for compromise, I had a degree of trust and confidence that didn't exist at the outset of the process.
GROSS: You are Catholic, and I'm wondering if there were Protestants who were participating in the negotiations who assumed that you couldn't possibly be fair and neutral because you're Catholic.
MITCHELL: Yes, there were indeed at the outset. Of the 10 political parties which were eligible to participate in the negotiations, two of them were actively opposed to my serving as chairman -- one of them on the grounds that you suggested. The other on the ground that I was being imposed upon the participants by the two governments, and they felt that the parties themselves should choose the chairman. And there was a good deal of vocal opposition.
You're well aware of what does and doesn't make news. The fact that eight parties and two governments supported me was not news. The fact that two parties opposed me was news. So those in opposition got most of the attention.
Over time though I think I was able to effectively negate those concerns, and we all became quite cordial. Even those who opposed me at the outset, on a personal level, our relationship was cordial. They continued in their opposition to me in a public way, but by the end of the process I think I had pretty much convinced them that I could in fact act in an impartial way.
GROSS: Did you feel like you were being tested on your impartiality, and what did you do that you feel proved you could pass the test?
MITCHELL: I had previously served as a federal judge in the district of Maine, and so I had some experience in arbiting matters -- deciding matters in a fair and impartial way. And I was able to do that in this case. I simply decided that I had no political stake. I wasn't myself exposed politically. And that I would simply call them as I saw them. I would make every decision based solely on my own sense of what was right or wrong and what was fair under the circumstances.
GROSS: There were violent acts on both sides that wanted to -- I'm saying both sides, there were more than two sides. There were violent acts representing several of the different groups involved, acts that were committed in the hopes of disrupting the peace talks -- of stopping the peace talks.
Obviously, these acts of violence were done in part to get your attention. So how would you respond to bombings?
MITCHELL: I said on the first day of the negotiations, at which I presided, that I believed it was important to establish and adhere to a policy that this process would continue no matter what occurred on the outside. That it would not be deterred or terminated by violence.
I think it's a profound error in these situations to say in advance that if an act of violence occurs the peace process will stop, because of course you then simply transfer control of the agenda to those who want to use violence. I acknowledge that it was very difficult to maintain that policy throughout the process.
There were times when we had to pause for a few days or a couple of weeks, but I kept the process going. Even when we couldn't meet in a full negotiating session I would call for smaller informal meetings. I said that I would meet with the parties myself on a one-on-one basis and in an informal way. Anything to keep it going so that it didn't appear to end or terminate in response to violence.
I think it's the only way you can do it in these circumstances, but it was not easy. The violence did come very close to destabilizing and destroying the process, which is understandable. It's a small society, about 1,600,000 people. And violence has touched almost every neighborhood and many families. And so emotions were very raw, and these political leaders are like politicians everywhere. They are, and properly, responsive to their constituencies.
And so on many occasions it was hard to keep it going, but somehow we were able to do so. In the end, I decided to establish a deadline largely because there was a huge surge of violence, beginning around Christmas of 1997 and extended into the early months of 1998. There was a tremendous surge of sectarian killing.
People were being shot on an almost daily basis, and I felt that the process was close to ending because of that. And so I made the decision that I would devise a plan to establish a deadline and would seek to gain the support of all of the parties for that. And I did so.
And it was, as I said, in large part motivated by my concern that the violence would disrupt the process. Fortunately, we were able to get it done before the process was fatally disrupted.
GROSS: You know, that's interesting that you used what seemed to be a possible ending of the peace process to help conclude it in a positive way.
MITCHELL: When I started the process I told the negotiators that I was not there to impose an American solution on them; that I would not attempt to dictate to them how they should solve their problems or how they should live their lives. That I saw my role as trying to help establish a framework -- a structure within which they could solve their own problems.
And I repeatedly used in my -- I guess you'd call them pep talks -- words of encouragement to them at difficult times, their own words to support actions I was suggesting. That surely was the case with violence.
The parties said over and over again to me -- the delegates -- we have to keep this negotiating process going because if it fails the war will resume. And it will resume on a scale much wider and more deadly than the previous round of violence.
And so as we get closer to the end I repeated that to them. I said now, as you yourselves have told me, we can't fail. I tried to create both positive incentives to getting an agreement, and what one might call disincentives.
And one of my major arguments was that if this process ends without an agreement, it will fail. You yourselves have told me over and over again the war will resume, and I'm telling you if the war resumes you will be blamed. You will be held accountable, and rightly so.
And so therefore, you've got to get an agreement. You've got to bring this to a conclusion.
GROSS: Were you also talking to them about how they would look in history?
MITCHELL: Yes, I said that to them many times. In fact just recently, on St. Patrick's Day in a function at the White House, many of them were present. And in connection with the current dispute I said to them, specifically, that history might have forgiven the failure to reach an agreement since few thought it possible, but history will never forgive the failure to implement an agreement once reached. Especially since the failure will now be attributable to those who supported the agreement.
That's the irony of the current situation, the opponents to the agreement, both those who operate within the political process and those who operate outside with the use of violence, have failed to bring this agreement down. The current crisis is created by disagreements among the supporters.
What a supreme irony. What a huge tragedy if the agreement now fails because the supporters of the agreement couldn't agree on its implementation.
GROSS: My guest is George Mitchell, former Senate majority leader and chair of the Northern Ireland peace talks. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is George Mitchell. His new book, "Making Peace," reflects on his experiences chairing the Northern Ireland peace talks.
During the period of violence that you were talking about right before the peace agreement was signed, did you feel that some of the participants in the peace talks were having problems keeping their own people in line -- keeping their own people in a position that was enforcing the peace?
MITCHELL: Oh, yes. That's a constant problem, and it continues to this very moment. Indeed, it is at the crux of all of the disagreement. The public in Northern Ireland, like people in democratic societies everywhere, are conveying to their political leaders very clear but often contradictory messages.
They're saying to their political leaders we want you to settle this peacefully. We do not want to go back to war. They're also saying we want you to settle it on our terms. And "our terms" means one thing to the nationalist community and quite another thing to the unionist community.
And so the politicians are caught in that tension. They have to try to resolve that tension. Now, there's nothing unusual about that in democratic societies. I was a United States Senator for nearly 15 years, and everyday I had tried to reconcile the conflicts between the demands of my constituency, the people of Maine, and the needs of the larger society.
And that is the ultimate test of leadership in a democratic society. How can you reconcile these never-ending conflicts in a way that's productive and beneficial to the whole society. And they face that everyday of these negotiations, and they face it everyday now in trying to implement the agreement that was reached on Good Friday.
GROSS: I want you to give us an example of one of the most really just horrible and shocking acts of violence that took place. And I'm thinking of in 1996 when two men carrying guns and wearing wigs to conceal their identities entered a hospital and went to the intensive care unit -- tell the story.
MITCHELL: It was an example of the inhumanity that has been created as a result of the deep and ancient hatreds. One of the political leaders, the secretary of one of the parties, had a son who was -- had suffered from birth from spina bifida and encephalitis and had been in and out of hospitals. And on this particular day the child had been hospitalized in a very sick condition and was placed in an intensive care ward in a children's unit. And his parents were at his side.
And two gunmen dressed in wigs entered the hospital in an effort to assassinate this political leader. There were police in the hallway guarding against that, and a gunfight ensued in the hallway of the intensive care unit of a children's ward in a hospital. One stray shot went through an incubator in which a very sick child was sleeping, and fortunately no one was killed. One of the policemen was shot in the foot; in the process the two gunmen escaped.
That was one of many horrible incidents. There are many others. The political leader in that case happened to be a Protestant leader. A truly terrible incident occurred in the other direction in July of last year when, in the intensity of a disagreement over a parade permit, a number of fire bombs were thrown into Catholic homes in a part of Belfast.
And one of the bombs -- fire bombs -- entered through -- was thrown through a window in a home, and it lit a fire in a home where three young boys were burned to death as they slept in their beds; ages about 8, 10 and 12. It's hard to imagine anything more cruel and inhumane than that.
And so that's the kind of thing that occurred over there, and that's why they are such very powerful emotions, very intense grief and it fuels a demand of course for retaliation.
GROSS: My guest is George Mitchell, former Senate majority leader and then the chair of the Northern Ireland peace talks. He's written a new book about the peace talks called, "Making Peace."
Now, after spending years in the Senate and years as the Senate majority leader, you knew a lot about the art of political compromise. Were there specific lessons that you learned in the Senate that you tried to apply to the Northern Ireland peace talks?
MITCHELL: First of course was patience. In the United States Senate there is the rule of unlimited debate. Any Senator can speak at any time, at any length on any subject. And as majority leader I had to sit through most of it, so I had heard 16-hour speeches, 12-hour speeches, eight-hour comments. And we used to the notion of letting people have their say even though it might be uncomfortable and difficult for you.
I've said often that I didn't realize it at the time, but the Lord in the mysterious way in which He works was preparing me for the Northern Ireland peace talks when I served as majority leader in the Senate in that way. And so one of the reasons I think that I was able to gain the trust and confidence of the participants was in part that I didn't cut them off -- I let them talk.
I told them they had -- they were elected. They represented their communities. They had a right to have their say. Even though sometimes the say was long, not quite on the subject, repetitious and so forth; I resisted all demands, and they were many of them, to cut people off and let them have their say. That grew directly out of my experience in the Senate.
The second was the importance of establishing a deadline. The one thing I learned as Senate majority leader, that I often had to back things up to the beginning of the recess in the summer. We're scheduled to go break for recess on August 6, and then I had important bills that we had to consider and a Senator was stalling and delaying, and so I often said well, we'll go on recess when we finish this bill. And if we're not finished by August 6 we'll stay until we're finished.
That experience served me well in Northern Ireland when I finally made the decision to try to establish a deadline, and I established Easter weekend of 1998 as the final deadline. And I told the participants that we're going to finish by midnight on Thursday April 9, and that we would stay in session continuously until we finished. And that there would be no break, no delay.
I wouldn't even consider as chairman -- I told them in advance, don't come to me and say, well, let's take a break and come back in a day or a few days or in a week. I said I won't even consider it. We're here. We're going to stay. We're going to finish.
We'll either get an agreement or we'll fail to get an agreement, but one way or the other we're finishing this weekend. That was directly a result of my experience in the Senate.
So I learned a lot as majority leader in the Senate, and some of it was applicable in Northern Ireland.
GROSS: Do you have to know when the time is right to do something as extreme as saying we're going to stay here until it's done or we'll just admit to failure?
MITCHELL: Oh, absolutely. That's really the essence of it, a matter of judgment. The day after the agreement was reached I was asked by many reporters, well, Senator, you've been here for two years, you established a deadline, you got an agreement. Why didn't you establish an agreement last year? Why didn't you establish an agreement 18 months ago?
My answer was that had I done so we would not have gotten an agreement. It's a matter of judgment as to when the circumstances will permit an agreement. Now, there's always a risk involved. When I first broached the idea of an absolutely inflexible deadline there was some British officials who disagreed, they were worried.
They said, look, the danger with creating a precipice is we all might fall off. And I had to acknowledge that's true, we might. This thing might fail. But I was convinced that the absence of a firm early deadline guaranteed failure.
That we simply couldn't succeed because the process was too difficult. There was too much violence. There was too much emotion. And that it would either peter out or it would simply be blown up by some huge atrocity.
On the other hand, I felt that a deadline, while it didn't guarantee success, created the possibility of success.
GROSS: George Mitchell. His new book, "Making Peace," is about his experiences chairing the Northern Ireland peace talks. He'll be back in the second half of our show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Back with George Mitchell. His new book, "Making Peace," reflects on his experiences as the chair of the Northern Ireland peace talks. From 1980 to '95 he was a Democratic senator from Maine. During his last six years in the Senate he was the majority leader.
A couple of personal crises that intervened in your life during the peace talks. One was your brother who died of bone cancer during, I believe, a low point of the peace talks -- you had a lot on your mind. Then your wife miscarried your first child with her during the peace talks.
And you had to decide what was your priority going to be, to be with your family at that moment or to keep -- keep at it with the peace talks. Because had you left at that moment things could have fallen apart.
Can you talk with us a little bit about how you decided what was the right thing to do, and the right thing to do for your family was a little different than the right thing to do for the future of Northern Ireland?
MITCHELL: I've faced, in every job I've had, that tension and I think almost -- most people in our society face that. How much energy, time and effort do you devote to your job, how much to your family? In the ordinary case, however, both the job and the family are in the same community.
Your office may be in downtown Philadelphia and your home in the suburbs, but that's the tension. The complexity in this situation was that the job was in Northern Ireland and my family was here in the United States. And so it was the separation by the Atlantic Ocean, the five hours time difference, all of the difficulties in getting back and forth that made it extremely difficult and made it very complicated for me.
That was aggravated by the almost complete absence of any progress in the talks for most of the first year and a half. It's one thing to make a huge sacrifice when you think you're going to get something done. It's another thing to do it when nothing good is happening, when people are being shot, when bombs are going off, when the delegates are simply repeating over and over again the same arguments.
Then there was a tremendous sense of frustration on my part and discouragement. But I always, way down deep, believed that it was possible to get something done. I always felt that because the people of Northern Ireland so plainly, in such overwhelming majorities, wanted peace -- didn't want to go back to the bitterness of the sectarian conflict through which they lived. That there was always hope.
And I thought to myself if I can somehow just keep going myself and just keeping these people here at the table talking, sooner or later a circumstance is going to arise -- a word, a phrase, a sentence -- common ground will emerge and I can put this thing together. So, there was a very difficult tension throughout.
My wife was critical to the outcome because she recognized the conflicts through which I was going, and although it was difficult for her she encouraged me to go back on those occasions in which we discussed openly the possibility of my leaving and not returning.
GROSS: When you found out that your brother was dying you decided to not fly home immediately, but to spend a little more time in Northern Ireland. And he died very quickly after that phone call. You were there for the funeral and gave the eulogy.
Do you have any regrets about that? I mean, if -- it's such a difficult decision to make, and as you said, many people have to make similar decisions in their lives. So, in retrospect are you comfortable with the decision that you made?
MITCHELL: No, I've always been uncomfortable with it. I'm one of five children -- we have four brothers and one sister, and we're all extremely close. And I was especially close to my brother Robbie -- born very close to him, separated by one year in school. He always was my hero, really.
And it's always troubled me deeply that I didn't come back to see him alive one more time. That he died over a weekend while I was there working on this process.
Theoretically, and I suppose intellectually, I can say that I made the right decision because we were able to get over a difficulty in the process and move it forward. But on a personal level it's always been, and continues to be, a really troubling thing for me.
GROSS: Did you tell the people who were participating in the peace talks about what was happening in your life? Did you want them to know that or not?
MITCHELL: No, I didn't tell them. I did say after the hurdle had been overcome at the time of my brother's death -- I told the two government's representatives that I had to leave immediately. It was the first time I'd ever left while the negotiations were actually in process, and I felt I had to make an explanation.
I did not tell them before that. I waited until after the negotiators reached agreement on the rules -- that was the subject that was pending. It was very difficult at the time, and then I called a recess.
And I asked the two governments to send their representatives to a meeting. And I simply told them that my brother had died and I felt that I had to return for the funeral, and that I wanted them to understand that that was my reason for leaving early.
But since the major decision had been made, I felt that there was no problem in my leaving. And of course they agreed, and so I literally walked out of the room in the building just a few minutes after the decision had been made.
GROSS: And you didn't want them to know earlier because...
MITCHELL: Well, I didn't want to distract anyone from what they were doing. It was a particularly tense and difficult moment. We had struggled for two months in the most difficult and acrimonious of circumstances. There had been a huge amount of violence outside the process during that month of July 1996.
So much so, that I had to not hold a full negotiating session for a period of nearly two weeks. There was a lot of speculation in the press that the process was about to fail. That I was going to quit in disgust. That this thing would never get off the ground.
And I felt that what was occurring in my own private life, while obviously a matter of concern to me, was nothing that I need burden anyone else with -- that there were plenty of problems in the process. And so I didn't say anything until after it was over.
GROSS: My guest is George Mitchell. He's written a new memoir called "Making Peace" about chairing the Northern Ireland peace talks. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is former Senate majority leader George Mitchell. His new book, "Making Peace," is about his experiences chairing the Northern Ireland peace talks.
You know, "The New York Times" columnist Tom Friedman suggested not too long to go that the president send you to Serbia to fix things up there. Do you think it's possible to negotiate with Milosevic now, knowing that after the Dayton accord's he let some time elapse and then practiced ethnic cleansing in Kosovo?
MITCHELL: Well, I don't know whether it's possible or desirable, but it may be inevitable. It obviously depends upon the circumstances which exist at the time the fighting stops and the talking begins. But certainly one cannot rule out the possibility that he will still be in power.
And according to at least the published reports, in a stronger position than he was when this conflict started. And it may be necessary to deal with him.
Now, I know there are some who say that we should rule that possibility out, but I don't think it's possible to predict with certainty or with precision what the circumstances will be when the talking begins and the fighting ends. And therefore, I don't think one can completely rule out that possibility.
GROSS: I'm wondering if you have mixed feelings about the bombing of Serbia. Mixed in the sense that, you know, I'm sure you oppose the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. On the other hand, the lives of everybody in Serbia are being, you know, at the least disruptive and at the most ruined. Some people have been killed.
MITCHELL: Well, I think every American, indeed peace-loving people everywhere, are concerned and saddened by the loss of life and the use of force. And particularly the loss of innocent life, that is of noncombatants -- children, women -- people who aren't directly involved in the conflict.
I think that's a very sad and tragic thing, and I hope very much that it comes to an end as soon as possible. But the reality is of course that this is a terrible option, but it appears to be the least bad of a whole series of terrible options. The point that must be understood is that there is no alternative course of action which is free of risk and guaranteed of success.
And the most obvious example of that is that those who criticize the president and NATO for this policy really don't offer any viable or credible alternative. Many have been frank to say their role is that of critic. It's not up to them to come up with a policy, but rather just to criticize the current policy.
Well, the reality is that there must be a policy pursued. Now, I will say this, that I think historians in the future will conduct a thorough analysis and evaluation of the events that led to current situation. And there is no doubt that they're going to find that there were seriousness calculations on all sides in the events leading up to the conflict. That's something that remains to be done, and I think it will be done in perhaps a very thorough and critical way.
But the reality is, given where we are now, given the circumstances which exist at this moment; I don't think there is any alternative that is feasible other than the ultimate acceptance by Milosevic and the Serbian government of the minimum demands that have been presented by NATO and the United States.
GROSS: What do you think is one of the grave American miscalculations?
MITCHELL: Well, it's hard to know -- look, I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, and they've become evident later. And so it's always easy with the benefit of hindsight. Heck, if I had perfect and visionary foresight I could have avoided a lot of mistakes in my own life. So I'm reluctant to be critical of people involved.
But I think there's a rather strong consensus that the so-called negotiating process at Rambouillet outside of Paris really wasn't a genuine negotiation, and that we simply prepared a plan and told the Serbs and the Kosovars this is it and take it or leave it.
And I think it occurred in a circumstance in which it -- it wasn't conducive to acceptance and compliance by anybody. And of course the Serbs didn't accept it. That it perhaps might have been possible at that point had there been a genuine negotiation to reach an agreement. It might not have been radically different, but would have been able to have people have a sense of participation in it more than was the case.
Now, I want to repeat, I don't know that would have been the case. You never know what lies down a road not taken, and it's possible that negotiations -- genuine negotiations would not have produced any result. That's one example.
GROSS: President Clinton didn't ask for a congressional vote on the bombing before America joined with NATO to bomb Serbia. Do you think -- you know, as a former Senate majority leader, if you were in the Senate would you have wanted a say in whether the bombing went forward or not?
MITCHELL: In the 1970s, the Congress enacted the War Powers Act, technically called the War Powers Resolution, which was a reaction to what was widely perceived as excesses in authority over the war making power by the executive branch -- the presidents during the Vietnam War. But no president since then, Democrat or Republican, has accepted the constitutionality of the War Powers Act.
And so there has been an ongoing and running dispute about the respective authorities of the president and the Congress over actions that are warlike in nature, but are short of any full and formal declaration of war. The president, being the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, plainly has the authority to take some of the former actions. The Congress plainly has the exclusive authority to declare war.
My preference is obviously biased toward full congressional participation, arising from the fact that I did serve as Senate majority leader. And I think that it would be wise for any president, President Clinton or any future president, Democrat or Republican, to involve the Congress to the full extent possible and to seek the maximum amount of authority; because after all, they are also representatives of the people.
That being said, it can often be difficult because look at what happened in the House of Representatives. A vote not to support the administration's policy followed within 24 hours by a vote to double the appropriations with which to pursue that policy. That sends a very clear, but unfortunately, sharply contradictory messages about the congressional attitude toward it.
GROSS: ... how did you interpret that message?
MITCHELL: Well, I interpret that as the Congress reflecting the disagreements among the American people, and the lack of certainty by the American people about either the national interest and the methods employed to vindicate the national interest. Also, though, an understanding of the horrendous nature of the crimes that are being committed in the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. And finally, I think probably some political element in it as well.
Look, for the Republicans this is not a bad strategy. This is not a widely supported conflict. It's got a lot of potential downside, very little upside. So if they can sit on the sidelines, take occasional pot shots and criticize, don't say yes, don't say no; then at the and there's a kind of open field politically.
I must say I don't think many have succumbed to that. I think the leadership there is stuck with the fact that there -- members of their party are divided just as the American people are divided. If you look at the public statements, many members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, support the administration's policy -- many oppose it.
It isn't as though it's clear-cut one-way politically, and so I think that they reflect probably pretty well the lack of certainty, ambiguity and confusion among the American people at this time.
GROSS: My guest is George Mitchell. He was the Senate majority leader before chairing the Northern Ireland peace talks. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, who's written a new book, called "Making Peace," about his experiences chairing the Northern Ireland peace talks.
Did you wish you were still in the Senate, or were you glad to be out of it during the impeachment process?
MITCHELL: Well, during the impeachment process I was glad to be out of it, but I have mixed feelings. Most major decisions in life involve trade-offs. You give up some things to get others. I loved the Senate. I loved being Senate majority leader. I enjoyed working with my colleagues, and I liked the challenge.
But 12 years earlier, I had made a personal decision that I would limit my term of service in the Senate. That I would not attempt to make it a lifetime position, and that I would, God willing and the people of Maine permitting, leave on my own volition. That's what I did.
It was not out of dissatisfaction with public service. I love public service, and I will always be grateful to President Clinton for giving me the chance to participate in Northern Ireland. But some parts of it I liked, some parts of it I didn't like. I don't think I would have enjoyed being there during the impeachment process.
Frankly, I don't think many of the senators who were there enjoyed it either.
GROSS: What would you have wanted to add to the debate?
MITCHELL: On the impeachment process?
MITCHELL: Well, of course I should make clear here that I was actively involved in assisting the president in -- as an informal adviser. I talked with him. I met regularly with members of his staff and his legal team once the process got to the Senate. So, I am not an unbiased or totally objective independent voice here.
My views are very much that the impeachment by the House was an error and abuse of the impeachment process. And that while the president's actions were reprehensible and indefensible, they did not warrant his removal from office. And that the process should not have reached that stage.
GROSS: Now, you launched a project with Bob Dole, and two think tanks -- the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution -- to analyze alternative mechanisms to replace the independent counsel statute that expires at the end of June.
What are some of the alternatives that you're coming up with to investigate charges against high-ranking officials?
MITCHELL: Well, we're going to announce it next Tuesday, and I didn't know it was in the public domain that we were going to make the announcement so soon. I'm not certain of how much authority I have to speak for Senator Dole or the other members of the working group -- eight distinguished Americans, four Republicans and four Democrats.
And so, I think on this I'd better limit myself to saying that it is now clear that the independent counsel statute will not be re-authorized, but will lapse at the end of June. It is equally clear, it seems to Senator Dole and I and the members of our group, that there must be in place some mechanism to deal with those rare situations when a conflict of interest is of such a magnitude that an independent investigation, if required a prosecution, will occur.
And we're going to make recommendations to suggest an alternative.
GROSS: No scoops for FRESH AIR, huh?
MITCHELL: Well, I have to say to you that I was a little bit surprised by the question, and I'm not certain of how much I can say. So I think that's the best I can do.
MITCHELL: I don't want Senator Dole or the other members of the group to feel as though I've somehow jumped the gun on them. And I think I'd better wait until the combined announcement is made next week.
GROSS: My guest is George Mitchell, and he's written a new book about his experiences chairing the Northern Ireland peace talks. The book is called "Making Peace."
These seem, internationally, to be very grim and frightening times. You say in your book that your experiences in Northern Ireland led you to believe in the power of human redemption. That would be a nice thing to believe in at the moment, so I thought maybe you could share with us what led you to that conclusion and hopefully you still feel that way even though the Irish peace process seems a little endangered right now.
MITCHELL: Some of the men who were elected as delegates to the peace talks in Northern Ireland had been convicted of very serious crimes earlier in their lives -- murder, bombing, things of that type. Some savage murders, they had served long prison terms. Others had been accused -- in speeches and so forth, not in prosecutions, of engaging in such activities.
But they all made valuable contributions to peace. Whatever had been the case previously, they were committed to trying to resolve the conflict and to move away from the violence of the past.
It was at a very powerful lesson in the capacity of human redemption, and the ability of people who had made very serious mistakes early in life, or perhaps even as adults, to learn from their mistakes; to acknowledge their errors; and to atone for them in a public way.
I have to say that I don't agree with you about the grimness of the international scene these days. Obviously what's happening in Kosovo is very difficult. There are problems in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and Africa and a whole host of other places.
But I think you have to look back at the century just past. That we tend to forget that in the period between 1870 and 1950 there were three major land wars in Europe. That hasn't occurred now for the past 55 years.
We tend to forget that just -- that a century ago women couldn't vote in America. There was a great deal of racism in our country. Nine-year-old boy's worked in coal mines and ten-year-old girls worked in textile mills. We've come a very long way. I think that there is an enormously bright prospect and future for people every where, and particularly for Americans.
We're clearly the most fortunate people ever to have lived. To be citizens of this, the most free, the most open, the most just society in history. Imperfect, as are all human institutions, but distinguished by the desire to constantly identify, acknowledge and right the wrongs of our society.
So, I'm really very optimistic not pessimistic.
GROSS: I just have one short and trivial question to ask you before we let you go, and that is that you made a hundred transatlantic trips in three years chairing the Northern Ireland peace talks. Do you have any advice on functioning with jet lag?
MITCHELL: No, my advice is don't do it if you don't have to.
GROSS: That sounds like the best advice.
MITCHELL: It is really.
GROSS: George Mitchell, I thank you very much for spending some time with us. Thank you.
MITCHELL: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: George Mitchell has written a new book, called "Making Peace," about his experiences as chair of the Northern Ireland peace talks.
I'm Terry Gross.
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Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: George Mitchell
High: Former U.S. Senator from Maine, George Mitchell. After leaving the U.S. Senate he chaired the Northern Ireland peace talks. His new book is about that, "Making Peace: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of the Negotiations that Culminated in the Signing of the Northern Ireland Peace Accord, told by the American Senator who Served as Independent Chairman of the Talks."
Spec: Peace; Treaties and Agreements; Violence; World Affairs; Lifestyle; Culture; George Mitchell
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Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Northern Ireland Peace Accord
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