Lessons from George Mitchell and Northern Ireland

In late 1995, the United States, Republic of Ireland, and United Kingdom called upon a retired U.S. senator by the name of George Mitchell to chair the struggling peace process in Northern Island -- a bitter, deadlocked dispute for which few people had much hope.

Yet in just a matter of months, we will mark 20 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which led to that conflict's end. In the field of conflict resolution, it is an example that stands prominently as a great success story.

So what might we learn from the Northern Island peace process -- and from Mitchell's actions which helped bring about a resolution? Following are a few hopefully helpful lessons, including some that perhaps any good mediator well knows. Yet it is sometimes the simple things that are most important:

1) The Mediator Must Be Trusted by Both Sides

Surprisingly, this was not a given. While Mitchell is widely lauded today, the parties initially protested his selection, feeling he had been imposed on them. For the entire first two days, he stayed out of the negotiating room as they debated his fitness to mediate. Finally, after midnight of the second day, he decided to enter the room -- only to have one of the parties walk out in protest.

So Mitchell took a bold step: he set a time for everyone to meet the next morning -- and personally called each party, including the one that walked out. "I understand you're opposed to me," he told the leader, "but I think that at the very least, you ought to come back and give it a try." If they weren't happy, he said, they could always walk out again. The next morning all the parties were seated at the table.

From that point on, Mitchell's fairness, personal charm, good humor, and patience gradually won all the parties over.

2) Include All Key Parties in the Process

Previous peace talks had involved only the official parties, but after their failure, the British and Irish governments recognized that they had to include the militias as well. "The notion that you could exclude the parties that were doing the fighting didn't, in retrospect, make sense," says Mitchell. But the other parties would not initially sit with the militias. So Mitchell, having once served as a judge, worked to assure all of the parties through his unbiased approach that all at the table would feel fairly treated.

3) Parties Must Commit to Only Peaceful Means

Mitchell set another key condition for the talks: a commitment to non-violence. Known as the Mitchell Principles, these six ground rules required that all parties to the talks adhere to "democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues."

"I required each party to stand in front of me and to make a specific pledge -- to me, my colleagues, and in front of all the other delegates -- that they would adhere to those principles. Then they had to go out and have a press conference and say it publicly. I just sort of made that procedure up to give it some sense of gravity and seriousness so that they would know they were making a commitment they had to keep."

Not that this always worked. At certain points in the process, some parties had to be excluded for violating those principles, but overall it moved the talks in the right direction.

4) Do Not Impose a Plan

Like all good mediators, Mitchell knew that the solution must come from the parties themselves: "On the first day, I said to the delegates...I have not come here with an American peace plan. There is no Clinton Plan. There is no Mitchell Plan. This is your country. These are your negotiations and if there is to be an agreement, it will be your agreement....I said to them that when this is over, I'm very conscious of the fact that I'm going home. I'm not going to be living with the consequences of it. You are. So this is your process. You own it. Make sure that you make it work."

Years later, when the agreement was drafted, Mitchell pointed out to the parties "that every single word in the agreement had been spoken or written by someone from Northern Ireland....I said, 'I told you this would be your process and this agreement is yours. Every word in it is yours.'"

5) Move Simultaneously on Some Issues

Among the stumbling blocks Mitchell faced was the British demand that militias disarm before negotiations could begin.

Realizing he could not get that to happen, he found a way of moving on parallel tracks. "I talked with a guy at the United Nations who had worked in El Salvador -- and he proposed what he called a sequencing or parallel de-commissioning. You have talks and as they go on, you could get the de-commissioning as you reached certain phases in the talks. And so we adopted that....It was a way...to allow the leaders to take positions that they were previously against without completely losing face."

6) Establish Space to Blow Off Steam

Another helpful tool was a one-hour window each day for any party to vent. "I told them about our processes in the Senate where we have something called the 'morning hour.' Any senator can some in and say whatever they want. So I said, why don't we do something like that? You guys come in here, get it out of your system, let it all out, and then we'll get to the work of the day...where serious discussion could occur." Mitchell himself would sit and listen to those complaints.

Venting produced an additional benefit, he believes: a greater willingness to hear the other side. "Many of them, for the first time in their lives, listened in the physical presence of the opposition...trying to understand their views and accommodate their positions."

7) Flexibility and Persistence

While Mitchell had an overall strategy, it was not set in stone. Many of the specific actions "were reactive and sometimes desperate attempts to keep the whole process together," he says.

In fact, about a week before the Good Friday accords were signed, a poll showed that 83% of the local population thought there was little chance of a resolution.

But Mitchell never gave up. In fact, he says, "the real negotiations were in just the last month or so. The rest of it was conditioning them to get into a process that was serious, where they would listen to the other side, try to understand their views, try to accommodate their positions."

"I thought of the Wright Brothers trying to get their plane off the ground. I figured if they could their plane off the ground, we could too -- and I had a lot more trouble than they did....Right at the very end, on the very last day, to the very last minute, we came this close to failing. This close. So this stuff isn't easy."

8) Courage of the Parties

In the end, Mitchell gives credit to the politicians from both sides who were willing to take unpopular stances: "These political leaders were in a tough spot -- not wanting to take a risk that would cost them their careers but fearing that the absence of it might cost them and their families their lives." The two centrist parties who did the most work in getting the agreement, says Mitchell, went into steep decline after the agreement. "But they recognized the importance in their society of making this change....rose to the occasion, found within themselves the courage that I think many of them didn't even know they had to take this leap of faith."

9) A Poor Alternative

Perhaps the most important factor of all was an even worse alternative: more violence. In the mediation field, this is what we call a poor BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement).

Says Mitchell: "I think what has been underestimated in all of the analysis is the fear factor. For years, they had been saying to me, 'you have to make it work because if this process fails, there's going to be a new outbreak of violence -- far worse than anything before.' That was because both sides were heavily armed and ready to go on a moment's notice."

Mitchell used that fear to persuade the parties. "I said to everyone of them: you've spent your life in politics, but not a thing you have ever done will be remembered if this process fails and wars breaks out. You will be remembered for only one thing: you permitted the slaughter to occur...far more than ever before." Sometimes, a little bit of a guilt-trip helps.

10) Set a deadline

While Mitchell couldn't impose a deadline, he did persuade all of the parties to accept one. "We had a particularly rancorous period in January 1998 when a prominent Protestant para-military leader was murdered in prison by a group of Catholic prisoners....This touched off an immediate round of tit-for-tat [violence]....and on a flight from Dublin back to New York in February, I thought the process was just about at the end."

In desperation, he devised the concept of a deadline to force them

into a decision. "I had no authority to do it, but I had a yellow pad and on the flight I wrote it out in hand." Then he went from party to party to obtain everyone's agreement -- often having to go back to each party multiple times when another had made a change. "I went around and around and around for two months, every day, 12 hours a day" until all of the parties finally agreed.

And One More Lesson: Don't Forget the Women

The women of Northern Ireland, said Mitchell, "turned out to be a major factor in the peace process." They created the Northern Ireland Women's Party which, while just 0.8% of the vote, managed to get included in the negotiations and were one of the few groupings that drew support from both sides of the aisle. Says Mitchell: "They represented the tremendous longing for ...bringing about peace, because the level of fear and anxiety that hung over the society was heavy and severe" with violence breaking out on a daily basis. "It could happen anywhere to anyone."


Many points have been made above, but perhaps most evident is that peacemaking is really hard work -- plain and simple. Yet it is obtainable if people stick with it. As Mitchell himself says, "Conflicts are created, conducted, and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings."

And nearly 20 years later, it's worked out.


For mediation services and training, please contact me at josh@mendesmediation.com.

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